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Ivory Tower: Our Whitehall based sitcom is back on the Zoom for global Britain

Somewhere in cyberspace…

Helen: Thank goodness that’s over.

John: Lockdown?

Helen: Purdah

John: I love Purdah, it’s a chance to get some work done.

Helen: It’s an excuse not to engage with the public.

John: That too.

Helen: It shouldn’t be used by Whitehall departments as an excuse not to answer the phone.

John: The press office loves it. “Sorry, we can’t provide those figures right now, due to Purdah…sorry, we have no comment to make on that, due to Purdah…”

Helen: “Sorry we can’t fix the blocked sink in the Ladies loo, due to Purdah”.

John: Bet you got loads done.

Helen: I’ve colour co-ordinated all the dividers in my ring binders.

John: Told you.

Helen: I suppose I better let them in.

John: Are they all in your waiting room?

Helen: Remember, you are just here as an observer.

Permanent secretary: I’ve been sitting here for five minutes.

Helen: Apologies, permanent secretary, I’ve been having WiFi problems here.

Permanent secretary: Never mind, everyone is here now. Welcome minister.

Williamson: Who is chairing this meeting?

Helen: You are, secretary of state.

Williamson: Am I? I thought the Truss was in charge.

Truss: I am, just that you are chairing.

Permanent secretary: Do you have an agenda minister?

Truss: Of course he does, always has ever since he was in the Whip’s office.

Helen: It’s in your ring binder secretary of state, under the orange divider.

Williamson: Ok, let’s get started. Welcome everyone to this meeting of…er one minute…that’s red…orange? No that’s pink…

Helen: The interdepartmental committee on the international education strategy, secretary of state.

Williamson: I knew that…ICIES

Smith: Stop me and buy one.

Williamson: What?

Smith: ICIES, stop me and buy one, it’s a good motto for an international education strategy.

Williamson: Is it?

Helen: I believe it was a joke, secretary of state.

Williamson: Who is that?

Helen: It’s the international education champion.

Truss: That. Is. A. Disgrace.

Smith: It was only a joke.

Truss: No orange and pink dividers in a government ring binder. Didn’t you get the memo? They should be red, white and blue.

Helen: Apologies minister, we’ve had requisition problems. Apparently, the Department for International Trade has ordered all those ones.

Williamson: Found it, I’d say that was more ochre than orange, a bit like the flame you get off the Balmoral 3000 or the Waterloo 960, not like those wood burning stoves…er…Shall we get started?

Permanent secretary: Please.

Williamson: OK, quick re-cap on terms of reference.

Helen: It’s under the green divider, secretary of state.

Truss: I think what Gavin means is, what exactly does this committee do?

Williamson: Do I?

Truss: Yes.

Williamson: So, what exactly does this committee do?

Smith: It sets strategy, minister.

Williamson: For what?

Smith: International education exports.

Williamson: I thought this country has had enough of exports.

Smith: Experts.

Williamson: Yes, I’ve spoke to the experts, they say you can’t even get a bag of salad in Northern Ireland.

Truss: This. Is. A. Disgrace.

Williamson: I think it’s something to do with your department, Liz.

Truss: No, these terms of reference are in Helvetica, not Times Roman.

Helen: I think the content might be the more important thing right now.

Williamson: I’m still not sure what this committee does.

Smith: It sets strategy within a broad frame of government policies and priorities, setting the parameters of a mandate for the international education champion to operationalise that strategy as circumstances allow, while monitoring progress against that spectrum of policies and priorities.

Williamson: Eh?

John: I think he means, you receive his report.

Williamson: Who are you?

Helen: This is John, from BEIS, he’s here to observe.

Williamson: Why are BEIS here? What do they want? They are after something aren’t they?

Permanent secretary: You are doing it again minister.

Williamson: Did Kwasi send him?

Permanent secretary: We’ve talked about this before, minister.

Williamson: You tell Kwasi, I’ve still got the tape.

Permanent secretary: John is merely here to observe.

Williamson: I’ve got my eye on you, John, if that’s your real name.

Truss: Does this committee really just meet to receive his news?

Helen: No, it does other things as well.

Truss: Such as?

Helen: There’s the annual re-fresh of the strategy. We publish a report each year.

Williamson: And this committee writes that report?

Helen: To be honest, we usually just change the name of the minister in the preface and change the dates on the targets. It’s pretty much the same from one year to the next.

Williamson: See, that’s the sort of efficiency they could learn from over in BEIS.

Permanent secretary: Can we continue, minister?

Truss: Next year I’ll be in Beijing, opening up pork markets.

Williamson: Sorry?

Truss: So, we could do higher education at the same time.

Williamson: With pigs?

Truss: With the Chinese.

Williamson: I don’t think you are allowed to say that any more Liz.

Permanent secretary: I think the minister means a joint trade mission.

Williamson: You can’t say anything anymore. The other day I said to my kids…

Permanent secretary: Can you focus, minister.

Williamson: Yes, that’s right, my kids are always saying that.

Helen: Perhaps, we could move to the first item on the agenda, alignment of the international education strategy with other government priorities.

Williamson: Quite right, how do educational exports help with the government’s main ambition?

Permanent secretary: Levelling-up?

Williamson: No, war with France.

Permanent secretary: Sorry?

Smith: I think the secretary of state is referring to the metaphorical war with France, in which the British Council competes with the Alliance Française for student enrolments.

Williamson: No.

Truss: Haven’t you seen the Royal Navy take on those fishing boats?

Smith: Yes, but I thought that was just to fire up the Conservative base on election day.

Williamson: Fire up Calais more like.

Truss: It was agreed in cabinet this morning.

Permanent secretary: War with France?

Truss: The pandemic has been such a hit with voters, we’ve decided to bring back more things we haven’t had for a while. It’s been over two hundred years, we are due one.

Smith: An Anglo-French war?

Williamson: Declaring war on the French isn’t something we could have done while still in the EU. Brexit gives us this unique opportunity…

Helen: I’m not sure that is going to help with international education exports.

Truss: We’ll be bringing cheese to Normandy and master’s programmes to the Sorbonne. A frigate will be moored off the coast of St Malo delivering university prospectuses to the occupied zone.

Permanent secretary: Occupied zone?

Williamson: We need a high profit joint-stock trading company for exports, backed up by good old British sea power.

John: You mean like the East India Company?

Truss: We were thinking more of the Russell Group.

Helen: I think we might have to do a big re-write on the annual report this time.

John: Can I ask what this might mean for research and science?

Williamson: BEIS can get its own war, this one is mine.

Truss: Ours, Gavin.

Williamson: That’s what I said, Liz. They wouldn’t let me have one when I was at the MoD, now’s my chance.

Permanent secretary: Minister, I think I will need to consult with the head of the civil service on this one.

Truss: Simon? Oh, he’s busy conducting three investigations into wallpaper. I suggest this committee meets in the command centre that Dominic Cummings left behind.

John: The staff in BEIS are using that.

Williamson: For the industrial strategy?

John: No, for e-sports, the screens are ideal for Xbox.

Smith: I don’t know if this what I signed up for.

Truss: You’re a champion, you should be good at e-sports.

Smith: I wasn’t thinking of that.

Permanent secretary: I know you were looking forward to the airmiles but it’s the pandemic, we’ve all had to do meetings on Zoom.

Smith: I meant declaring war on others for private gain.

Truss: I thought you used to be a vice-chancellor.

Williamson: Just as the count is being announced for Andy Burnham in Manchester, Allegra Stratton will be briefing the lobby of government plans for a naval blockade on Dieppe.

Smith: That’s mad.

Truss: Good way to stop Burnham’s speech being covered on TV.

John: Can I remind the ministers that it will not be possible to declare war on France at this moment, metaphorical, proxy, or otherwise.

Williamson: Why not?

John: Purdah.

Truss: Eh?

John: Purdah rules for the civil service extend until all vote counts are completed, that won’t be until Sunday or even Monday in some cases.

Williamson: Is that right?

Helen: Absolutely minister, you can’t get a sink in the Ladies unblocked round here, never mind a naval blockade.

Permanent secretary: Helen, is completely correct, maybe we should seek advice from the Cabinet Office before proceeding any further.

Williamson: Ok, fair enough. Liz, will you try to get hold of Boris?

Truss: He’ll be watching Grand Designs with Carrie Antoinette at this time. I’ll call after 5.00.

Williamson: All right, meeting adjourned. Bye everyone.

[People leave the Zoom meeting]

Smith: Wait, hold on…does anyone want to hear my report?

Terms of use: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should be shared with friends like responsibility for losing a by-election in Hartlepool. Want to buy shares in a joint stock trading company for international educational exports? Want to say hello? Email ivorytower@researchresearch.com