Ivory Tower: exclusive access to the diaries of the education secretary
I’m having breakfast with Mrs Z and feeling pleased with myself.
“I think that went rather well,” I say.
“Mmh?” she says from behind the Telegraph.
“My media round on Sunday,” I say, buttering a piece of toast.
She puts down the Telegraph.
“And my interview in the Sunday Times,” I say.
“The one in which you said there would be no more free lateral flow tests?” she says, fixing me with that look.
“That wasn’t me. That was someone else,” I say, looking at the crumbs on the tablecloth.
“It sounded like you,” she says.
“Gosh, these crumbs get everywhere. Maybe we shouldn’t get Waitrose own brand bread anymore,” I say.
“An anonymous senior Whitehall source, in the same article where you are the first cabinet minister to call for five days of self-isolation?” she says, still looking at me.
“Has the post arrived yet, darling?” I ask.
“The post hasn’t arrived this early since 2010—I blame the government,” she says, going back to her Telegraph.
“At least the TV interviews were good,” I mutter under my breath.
“What, the ones in which you had to deny saying there would be no more lateral flows?” she snorts.
“I don’t recognise that,” I say defensively.
Just then one of our children comes in.
“Daddy,” they say.
“Your father is very busy,” says Mrs Z.
“Thank you dear,” I say.
“Yes, today he will be brushing up on higher education regulation so that he knows from now on not to tell the Sunday Times that students should complain about online teaching to the Office for Students,” she says, still behind the Telegraph.
“Shouldn’t they?” I ask.
“No, the Office for Students doesn’t deal with students,” she says.
“Don’t they?” I ask.
“No, you are thinking of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator,” she replies.
“I thought that was Sue Gray,” I say.
She puts down the Telegraph and gives me the look.
“Daddy, please, this is important,” says my child.
“It will have to wait till after Sue Gray has reported,” I say.
“What’s Sue Gray got to do with it?” they shout.
“I just mean it’s a busy week for me,” I say, trying to find those crumbs again.
“Look Nadhim, if you are going to waste your life going on television to defend every piece of nonsense the government does, the least you can do is speak to your children,” says Mrs Z. “And another thing, have you seen the energy bill for those stables? It’s outrageous—I blame the government, you know.”
I start checking under the tablecloth.
“Can you please pay the heating bill for the stables,” says Mrs Z.
“Not this again,” I say.
The doorbell rings.
“Thank God, my driver,” I say. “Got to go to work—bye everyone.”
“Wait,” shouts the child.
“Don’t forget the energy bill,” shouts my wife.
An eternity with Kay Burley defending Boris is easier than this.
I’m in the department when my press officer runs into my office.
“Oh my God, they’ve found out about the party,” she says.
“Which one?” I say.
“The one during lockdown,” she says.
“You’ll really need to be more specific than that,” I reply.
“In Downing Street,” she says.
“Not helping,” I say.
“Apparently, there was an email inviting 100 people,” she says, looking panicked.
“You really need to narrow this down,” I tell her.
“It was on the 20th of May 2020,” she says.
“Thank God,” I say.
“Why? This is a PR disaster,” she says.
“I wasn’t there,” I say, flicking through my Filofax.
“Where were you?” she asks.
“I was at another… err… I was at a work meeting,” I say, locking my Filofax in my desk drawer.
“This is big trouble,” she says.
“Why? It’s not a DfE problem—the party was in Downing Street,” I say.
“Yes, but they’ll expect you to go on television and defend it,” she says.
There is a pause as the penny drops.
“Right, have you still got that letter from angry parents at that primary school in Newcastle?” I ask.
“The one you said to throw away?” she replies.
“To file, I asked you to file it. Anyway, book some tickets for the east coast line. It’s about time someone from Whitehall went to speak to those poor parents. Hasn’t anyone round here heard of levelling up?” I ask.
“Yes, secretary of state,” she sighs, and I start packing my bag.
PMQs was a car crash and now I have to go on the Robert Peston show to defend this cluster shower. In our Newcastle Travelodge I’m practising answers with my press officer.
“It was a work meeting,” I say.
“Do you usually bring your own booze to work?” she asks, pretending to be Pesto.
“Do I?” I say confused.
“You could say, ‘Personally, I don’t drink Robert.’ It will disarm him,” she advises.
“Don’t I?” I say, more confused.
“No one knows, so you might as well say anything to get through the interview,” she says.
“Should I?” I say, more lost than I was when I got out of Newcastle train station.
“It’s never stopped you before,” she says.
“OK, ask me another,” I say.
“If it wasn’t a party, what were the trestle tables for?” she asks.
“Err… spreadsheets?” I say, wondering if this one might be a stretch, even for me.
“I put it to you, secretary of state, that Number 10 sounds like Freshers’ Week at Carlsberg University,” she says.
“It does a bit,” I reply.
“No, that’s what Pesto will say—you have to deny it. You say something like, ‘That year Freshers’ Week was online, and we thank the young people for the sacrifices they have made,’” she tells me.
“And then Pesto says?” I ask.
“Then Pesto says, ‘Doesn’t that make the partying in Downing Street worse?’” she replies.
“He’s got a point,” I say.
“Give me strength,” she says. “Even Williamson wasn’t this hard work.”
“Makes sense, though,” I say.
“What does?” she asks.
“Them being drunk all the time. It explains some of the decisions they made during the pandemic,” I say.
“Don’t say that,” she replies, putting her head in her hands.
“Maybe if they hadn’t spent so much on booze, they could have afforded their own wallpaper,” I say.
She starts to cry.
I’m alone in the lift in Portcullis House. It’s just about to leave when the doors open again and Sue Gray gets in.
“Morning secretary of state,” she says, giving me a look.
“I wasn’t there,” I say, staring intensely at the floor.
“You weren’t where, minister?” she asks, politely.
“At the thing,” I say, pressing the Up button repeatedly.
“What thing, minister?” she asks.
“The thing you are investigating. Not that you are investigating, that’s what the police do, and you are not the police. I mean, not yet the police. I mean, you have not yet informed the police. Not that you are an informer. No, you only get informers in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. I mean, you are not a commandant or something, just an inquisitor, not like the Spanish Inquisition, though. Gosh, it’s hot in here. Are we actually moving?” I say, completely relaxed.
“You mean, when the prime minister went into the Downing Street garden to thank his workforce?” she says.
“Did he?” I say, confused.
“Isn’t that what you told Robert Peston last night?” she says.
“Did I?” I say, pressing this broken Up button over and over again.
“How are the horses, minister?” she asks.
“Not this again. Look, I repaid the energy bill in full and apologised for the error,” I say, as the doors of the lift open.
“I just meant, are your family enjoying them?” she says, stepping out of the lift.
“Have they been talking to you?” I say, suspiciously.
“Going down, minister?” she asks.
“Not if I can help it. I’ll vote no confidence in him first,” I say as the doors close and I start heading back down to the foyer.
What a week! Thank goodness I can work from home today and catch up on my red boxes. Please, just give me five minutes’ peace and quiet. I’m in my study when the phone rings.
“Hello,” I say, picking up.
“Nadders, old boy, how are you?” says the voice. “I saw you on the telly this week. You were on a lot, actually. Quite the week for government cockups, eh?”
“Sorry, who is this?” I ask.
“It’s your old pal, Jeffrey,” says the voice.
“Cox?” I ask.
“No, it’s me, Jeffrey Archer,” comes the voice.
“My God,” I say.
“Kind of you to say so,” he replies.
“How did you get this number?” I ask.
“Mary got it from some cove at the Science Museum. Your department said you had gone ex-directory or something silly,” he says.
“How can I help you, Jeffrey?” I say, thinking that I do owe him five minutes after all these years.
“After a bit of advice, really,” he says.
“Go on,” I say, looking at the clock.
“Well, you know all these scandals that are engulfing the Tory party at the moment?” he says.
“Vaguely,” I sigh.
“The boozy parties, the dancing on the eve of Philip’s funeral, Carrie’s wallpaper, the VIP procurement channel, Barnard Castle, that Arcuri woman, lying to the Queen…” he drones.
“Yes, I know,” I say with my head in my hands.
“Well, I was wondering that since things are now so bad, whether it wouldn’t be a jolly good idea for me to re-join the government as some kind of ethics advisor? A sort of Mr. Clean, turns out what I did wasn’t so bad after all,” he says.
There is silence. The clock ticks. I put the phone down.