Ivory Tower: more exclusive extracts from the diary of the education secretary
“Denzel Washington,” I say.
“No, that’s Idris Elba,” says my spad, sounding exasperated.
“Gosh, this unconscious bias training is a lot trickier than those backbenchers led me to believe,” I say.
“Secretary of state, we’ve been at this for over an hour now. Perhaps we could take a break,” says the spad, with her head in her hands.
“No, let’s keep going. I’ll get one right soon,” I tell her.
“OK, try this one, minister,” she says.
“I know him,” I say delighted, but still unsure.
“Go on,” says the spad.
“Don’t tell me. He’s a footballer,” I say, hoping that she does tell me.
“What kind of footballer?” she asks, fiendishly.
“I don’t know—is he a goal poker, or maybe a defensive person,” I say.
“I mean which code?” she replies.
“Code? He’s not James Bond, is he?” I ask, confused.
“No minister, there are different codes of football,” she says, gently.
“You mean like signals to learn when you take a corner or a free hit?” I ask, wishing I’d stopped when I had the chance.
“A free kick, minister,” she says, grimacing.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to kick people,” I say, more confused than ever.
“The codes are association football—sometimes called soccer—and rugby football, which itself has two distinct codes, union and league,” she says.
“There are two types of rugby?” I say, mind blown.
“Give me strength,” says the spad. “I was trying to help you out. This is Marcus bloody Rashford, England and Manchester United centre forward, food campaigner, government critic and bane of the life of everyone in the DfE. He’s been in every newspaper in the country, literally hundreds of times. How can you possibly not recognise him?”
I look again at the photograph and decide maybe we’ve done enough training for today.
“Who does Idris Elba play for?” I ask. My spad begins to weep.
My contacts in the whips’ office tell me that a cabinet reshuffle is on the cards and that I’d better do something to boost my popularity or I may be out on my ear. So, I arrange a Zoom call with that Marcus Rashford guy who apparently has five million Twitter followers.
My spad is helping me with the dial-up when she is called away to speak to someone in the cabinet office. I’m left on my own with Marcus, which is good, we can be informal, and I’ll impress him with how cool I can be.
“Hey man!” I say.
“Hello, secretary of state,” says Marcus.
“Really good to speak to you, what’s the buzz?” I say.
“Sorry?” says Marcus.
“No need to apologise,” I tell him. “No one should ever have to apologise for who they are.”
“What?” says Marcus. He’s not as bright as I’d been led to believe from all those gushing newspaper articles.
“Look, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about,” says Marcus.
“Fire away, hommie,” I tell him, putting my thumb in my belt and leaning back in my chair, looking gangsta.
“Err…right. OK, it’s about making sure disadvantaged kids have access to…” says Marcus.
“Let me stop you right there,” I say. “As long as I am secretary of state, I can assure you that those kids will definitely get free apples.”
“Wow! That’s very generous, apples can be expensive,” says Marcus. I think I’ve impressed him.
“In fact, they can have a fresh apple every day,” I say, wondering if I should run that past Rishi first.
“That’s going a bit far,” says Marcus. “A generic tablet would do.”
“Oh no, I think we can do better than that,” I say, wondering if vitamins might be a cheaper option after all.
“That’s amazing, secretary of state. I’m really impressed. Everyone said I’d get nowhere with you because you were a complete…” Marcus stops himself mid-sentence.
“A complete what? Legend?” I ask, leaning back further.
“A completely busy person,” says Marcus. “Look, thanks for your help. I’ve got to go to training now.”
“Great to speak to you, fo’shizzle,” I say. “Listen, that’s a mad accent, man. Where’s your hood?”
“Err…north London,” says Marcus.
“Really? Are there many Manchester United fans in north London?” I ask.
“I guess. Probably,” says Marcus, and he ends the call.
My spad comes back in and I’m now leaning so far back in my chair it’s about to topple over, but I’m feeling super fly.
“Did you manage that on your own?” she says, looking surprised.
“I did, and I’ve just had a brilliant idea. Can you get that journalist from the Evening Standard on the phone? I feel a wide-ranging interview coming on.”
Boris is furious. I don’t remember the PM being this angry since Carrie said he couldn’t watch those films on her laptop.
“I defended you at PMQs,” he shouts down the phone. “They asked me if I thought you were up to the job, and I said you’d made heroic decisions during the pandemic to close schools.”
“I did close schools,” I protest.
“The day after you opened them,” fumes Boris. “Now you’ve gone and done this bloody stupid thing.”
“The A-levels aren’t as bad as last year,” I say.
“Not that, the bloody Marcus Rashford thing,” he shouts.
“The training isn’t as easy as it looks, and we’d been at it for an hour,” I say.
“What are you talking about? Haven’t you seen the Standard?” he moans.
“Oh, are you cross about the apples? He said he would be happy enough with vitamin pills,” I say.
“What on earth…? Have you seen Twitter?” he says.
“Err…yes, I think we had a demonstration of it in the department,” I say, wondering if that was a trick question.
“Marcus Rashford says he’s never met you in his life,” he rants.
“Is that a trick question?” I ask, really confused.
“It’s not even a question. Apparently you had a Zoom call with Maro Itoje,” he says.
“Who?” I ask, realising I’ve got lost in this conversation.
“He’s a rugby player,” shouts Boris.
“I know this one, is he association or union league?” I ask, feeling pleased with myself.
“Gavin, I don’t want you to leave London,” says Boris.
“That’s very kind of you prime minister, but I’ve got half-term booked with the family in Scarborough,” I tell him.
“I’m going to have a shuffle,” he says.
“Yes, best to keep the circulation going when you are on Zoom so often,” I say, helpfully.
“Gavin, can you remind me why I made you education secretary?” sighs Boris.
“Because of the photographs,” I say.
“Ah yes, I’d forgot about that. As you were, just don’t leave London today or tomorrow,” he says.
“I’ve got a car booked…” I say, but he’s ended the call. I was really looking forward to stopping off at Barnard Castle to see what all the fuss is about.
After I phone in my speech to Universities UK in Newcastle, I come out of the teleconferencing suite in the department, thinking it had gone quite well. Two civil servants are sniggering at the water cooler—they see me coming and walk away.
“Were you just Zooming?” asks Michelle on her way to the vending machine to buy another diet Dr Pepper.
“Yes, to Universities UK,” I say.
“Oh, was that today? Is that the one with the vice-chancellors?” she asks.
“Hard to tell when you are speaking on Zoom,” I say.
“What did you tell them?” she asks, mildly interested.
“I told them there were no excuses for not delivering face to face, and that watching someone speak on a screen can never be as good as being there in real life,” I say.
“You mean like Cats?” she says.
“Cats, I guess, but I was thinking about humans really,” I say, wondering if I’ve got off at the wrong stop again.
“No, I mean the movie Cats isn’t as good as seeing it in the theatre. I’ve seen it twice,” she says.
“The movie?” I say, confused, again.
“No, no one could watch the movie twice,” says Michelle.
“Who is the lead actor in it?” I ask.
“Idris Elba,” she says.
“No Michelle, he’s a footballer,” I tell her, shocked at her ignorance.
She sighs and walks away. The two civil servants are sniggering again.
It’s good to have a rare day back in my constituency, in the magnificent county of Staffordshire, so much better than all the other counties: Shropshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, all the counties. It’s the best county in the world. Except Yorkshire, of course.
Mrs Williamson comes in carrying a copy of the Telegraph. She shakes her head sadly and sits down.
“What’s the matter, love?” I ask.
“Oh Frank,” she says.
“Frank?” I say.
“I’m so worried about you,” she continues.
“Why? The whips’ office says there isn’t going to be a reshuffle now,” I tell her.
“You’ve been under so much stress recently. It says here you mixed up Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje,” she replies.
“Well, did you know there were two types of rugby?” I say, defensively.
“Maybe we should take a break. Go away somewhere, just the two of us,” she says.
“That would be nice, where to?” I ask.
“Do you still have that ministerial car booked for Newcastle?” she says.
“Yes, I think I could keep it for a while longer,” I say.
“Good, then we could drive to Barnard Castle and get your eyes tested,” she says, slapping me round the head with the rolled-up newspaper.
I think I’ve missed several stops in this conversation.