[Cabinet Room, Downing Street. Giles Hawtrey, The prime minister of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is seated alone. There is a knock at the door. It is Sir Harman Elliott, Cabinet Secretary]
HE: Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Employment and Social Security is on his way up. You wished to have me present for the meeting ?
GH: Yes, thank you. One is mindful of the need for a neutral arbiter. Or referee. Or witness.
HE: Prime Minister, I am naturally inclined to serve the interests of good government. Though I am less inclined to, metaphorically speaking, ‘hold your coat’.
GH:It’s not me. He’s the one with the chip on his shoulder. He’s the one who looks at me sat here and written across his humourless, gaunt face is “that should be me”.
HE: I cannot involve myself in the internal party politics.
[a telephone rings, Sir Harman answers]
Prime Minister, the Secretary of State is outside.
GH: Send him in. Let’s get this settled.
HE: [on the telephone] send him in.
[the door opens, in steps Roger Lespauvres SoS W&SS]
GH: Roger, good to see you. Thank you for making the time to see me. I know you must be so busy. At least I hope you are.
RL: Prime Minister, everything is as it should be. Lessons are learned everyday. Our journey is not yet complete.
GH: Let’s hope ‘our journey’ does not take us to receiving your new Supplementary Income Credit.
RL: SIC is well on course to meet the target dates.
GH: These are the reset target dates which were arrived at after pausing long enough to realise we;d spent 3 years building a computer system with the capacity and capability of a cardboard box. With the words ‘Real Time Data’ written in felt tip on the side ?
RL: You have brought me here to seek my resignation ?
GH: Oh no you don’t. This sinkhole of public funds is your responsibility, you will stay until the bitter end. Besides, the reason I have asked you here Roger, is my summit meeting in Brussels. I am trying to negotiate limits on economic migrants claiming benefits whilst trying to convince the great unwashed to stay in Europe. You are the most vocal Euro-sceptic. I’m not having you out there pissing in. We all piss out together.
RL: So what do you want ?
GH: Well, I am due to go to Brussels to ask for a reduction in out of work benefit for migrants. I will not get that. Because they’ve all paid their contributions. But the deal which has been done, is to be able to cap in work benefits.
RL: There will be only one benefit when SIC rolls out. Eventually.
GH: Exactly. Now, the treasury have asked a question, and I don’t know the answer, and I’m sure you will. So be so kind as to tell me what the percentage of people claiming SIC who are employed is ?
RL: We cannot allow ourselves to get bogged down in the minutiae of cold statistics.
HE: I think the Prime Minister is simply wondering who is claiming what ?
RL: I think I should explain that the underlying principle of SIC is that benefit is benefit whether one works or not. It hardly matters whether someone is a part-time share fisherman in Stourbridge or a full-time loafer in Hull.
GH: You don’t know do you ?
RL: It’s not that I don’t know. I don’t wish to know. I don’t need to know.
GH: So you don’t know ?
RL: I do know that we continue to expand the coverage of SIC. Since we closed all the Jobcentres and moved to digital claim points on garage forecourts, we’ve seen an increase in claimants being dealt with under SIC.
GH: We will leave to one side, for the moment, how many of those might be the product of 15 year old hackers in a back bedroom, and concentrate, if we can, on how many people are in work and claiming SIC ?
RL: Not enough.
GH:You don’t know.
RL: The overall claimant count is…..
GH: That’s a ‘No’, isn’t it ?
GH: I see.
HE: You see, Secretary of State, I think the Prime Minister has in mind the fact that public opinion is a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, so where it exists, nature sees to it that the vacuum is filled with whatever is nearest. Sometimes that is fact. Sometimes it is ahem, a little more subjective. It has been the time honoured role of the civil service to ensure that that which should not fill the vacuum is shielded behind that which might purely serve to fill the vacuum. Now the vacuum is labelled “Europe”. And I think the Prime Minister fears it is filling with ……..
GH: Hoards of benefit claimants from Freedonia……..
RL: Does that exist ? I thought it was a Marx Brothers thing….
GH: It is. Not that that will worry the electorate.
HE: I think perhaps the Prime Minister is concerned that politics has become a policy beauty contest and a show of hands on things people approve of. The British people have received, in the main, a state education. As a result they are unburdened with nuance. They wish to either like, or dislike something. They are uncomfortable with disliking something which is nonetheless ‘good governance’. Many of them do not approve of spending money on the military but fall over themselves to donate to charity for ex-soldiers. Ex-soldiers are heroes. Current soldiers, if overseas and not at home, drunk and committing acts of anti-social behaviour are heroes. But people do not wish to pay for heroes. They wish to praise them. Praise fills the vacuum. Funding does not.
RL: And what does this have to do with me ?
GH: You knew I would have to negotiate on in-work benefit. Out of work benefit is sealed off in treaties it would take decades to unpick. So you made damned sure we’d never be able to tell how many migrants are claiming. So I can’t announce that the deal is good.
HE: With respect Prime Minister, you may. It will fill the vacuum. No-one is concerned with what ‘good’ is. They are satisfied if it is said to be ‘good’. Nothing in the vacuum should be quantified.
GH: Harman, I’m signing off on a deal which amounts to insuring the economy against acts of God, the nature of which is to be decided by atheists.
HE: That, Prime Minister, is politics in a nutshell.
GH: Roger, you have turned the welfare state into the inside of Bobby Sands cell, and I can’t sack you, I can’t allow you to resign. This is like an Edwardian marriage.
RL: I have revolutionised welfare.
GH: Turned it upside down ? Yes. I will grant you that. So, that fact is, the leading Euro-sceptic in my cabinet is unable to to provide me with the data necessary to demonstrate a successful negotiation on the only thing I could actually negotiate ?
HE & RL: No Prime Minister.