How British Government finance works – by the stand-up comic who worked for Education Secretary Michael Gove

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Stand-up comics tend to have odd and interesting backgrounds.

Gareth Morinan’s university degree was in Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics.

Yesterday at Bar Italia in Soho, he told me: “I started in the Civil Service in late 2008 because I wanted to see how government works and I was there until around mid-2011.

“Most of the time I was there, I was in the Education Department although, for the first six months, I worked in this dodgy department called The Export Credits Guarantee Department, which is the only department other than the HM Revenue & Customs that makes money. It’s basically like a government-run insurance firm.

If some big British company wants to export, they’ll always have an insurance deal. But, if they’re exporting to some dodgy country – if they want to export fighter jets to some dodgy country – no private insurance company is going to insure that: it’s too risky. So the government has this entire department purely set up for supporting dodgy deals. I was really curious, so went to work there for six months and then left. I was an analyst there. As an analyst, people take your word as Gospel.”

“That’s because your art is a science.” I suggested.

“Yes,” Gareth laughed, “even though, when you look at the spreadsheets, it’s very dodgy. I had situations where I would e-mail someone a figure saying This is a very rough figure. This is the best figure I can get. And it got sent round the department and would eventually come back to me as fact and I’d say: I know that’s not fact. I came up with that figure. Don’t put that out on a press release. But they did. This happened a lot in the Export Credits Guarantee Department.”

“That was under the Labour Party?” I asked.

“Yeah. You had these figures – especially around the time of the financial crisis, where some analyst somewhere in some bank had come out with some figure he’d plucked out of the air on the back of an envelope and, as soon as it became public, that figure became ‘fact’ and it could not be changed and everyone had to work from those figures.

“All politicians really want is a number: Give me a number. Don’t tell me anything else. The less I know about how dodgy this number is, the better it is – It’s that plausible deniability thing.

“I started in the Education Department about a year before the General Election so, when I started, Ed Balls was the Minister and then, about a year later, it was all-change because the Coalition came in and what we were doing changed somewhat.”

“Changed?” I asked.

“Well,” Gareth told me, “the key thing Michael Gove did when he came in was – on the first day – a big picture of the Queen was put up in Reception. And there were some formality differences.

Policies changed with Michael Gove

Policies changed with the arrival of journalist Michael Gove

“The most interesting thing was that the Permanent Secretary told us – these are not his exact words, but he basically told us – This new government – specifically Michael Gove – doesn’t care so much about the details or the facts. He cares more about ‘the narrative’. 

“When we were doing White Papers, whereas before it was very much We’ve got to have these details; this is the headline figure, Michael Gove, because he’s a journalist, just wanted the story to read well.

“He was a local journalist, then a journalist for The Times, then a TV commentator… then suddenly he’s in charge of national education policy, which makes a change from cracking jokes on A Stab in The Dark with David Baddiel.”

There is a clip on YouTube of him presenting 1993 TV satire show A Stab in The Dark:

“Most of the financial projections in Education,” Gareth told me, “are based on how many kids there are going to be and those calculations are based round the Office for National Statistics’ population projections. But Michael Gove was quite keen for a while on trying to replace them with projections done by somebody he knows at Tesco.

“At Tesco, they have all this Clubcard data and they have projections which help them decide where to open up a new store. And, for quite a while, he was arguing we should start incorporating those – or replace the official national projections with ones done by Tesco. It didn’t go down well in the department.

“I actually had to lie for Michael Gove once.

“During the big Comprehensive Spending Review where (Chancellor of the Exchequer) George Osborne works out how much money he’s going to give to all the departments, I was basically the guy working out the headline figures of how many billions we needed. I would hand those numbers to someone who then had a meeting with Michael Gove – There was always a buffer zone between me and Michael Gove. Maybe I was too scruffy.

“Our department did quite well in the budget review – basically they decided to give us extra money at the cost of other departments. So we had a nice little champagne reception to thank everyone and the look Michael Gove gave me when I stood there listening to his speech was like How did this one get in? I was just wearing a shirt and cardigan and looking very scruffy with uncombed hair. He was like Oh God! What is going on there?

“But, basically, in the spending review, we were negotiating and there was a strategy department. I provided numbers and we would go into meetings with all these senior Treasury people and I was the person having to justify all the numbers.

“Over the course of several months, while this was happening, the Office for National Statistics came out with a new projection of pupil numbers, which underpinned all our financial projections… and their projections were basically lower. So, overnight, our projection of how much money we needed went down by about half a billion pounds.

Michael Gove at Westminster in 2008

Michael Gove looking contemplative in Westminster in 2008

“Michael Gove’s opinion was that this had not happened and that the projections we believed were the ones that were higher. That was the official line.

“We were about to go into this meeting and I’m the one who has to explain the actual numbers to all these senior Treasury people who were probably better negotiators than the people in our department and better analysts than me. And I was told before I went into the meeting: Well, just come up with something.

“So I was pinned down in this meeting by the Treasury people: What’s the difference in these numbers? Which ones are the correct ones? The higher ones? Why? I basically just stuttered for a while and gave a very unconvincing performance.”

“Did you get away with it?” I asked.

“No,” said Gareth. “After that meeting, I went to my boss, who was an analyst, and he was like Well, this is outrageous. We shouldn’t be lying. And my boss spoke to the other person’s boss and eventually they decided that we were going to go with the lower numbers… But here’s an interesting example of how analysis works in the government.

“The thing you learn when you work in any government department is how little information we actually have. There are entire swathes of the education budget that no-one really knows the cost of.

“The biggest mystery black hole is kids who have special needs. There are more of these kids every year – especially ones with serious medical problems who require like £100,000 a year – because, as health technology improves, more kids get saved and live longer.

“There’s no way of predicting how many of these kids there’s going to be and medical costs keep going up, so there was this line in the budget which was The 1% Assumption. It was a long-standing assumption: We don’t know how much it’s going to be, so we just assume it’s going to rise by 1% every year.

“My brainwave was to ask: Well… Could we make this The 2% Assumption? That was thought to be a genius idea. We put it into the calculations and suddenly the gap was closed and we were back to the higher figure we had originally wanted.

“That was probably the one thing I did which made the biggest actual difference when I worked for the government.”

* * * * *

Gareth Morinan has a YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/gmorinan, to which he will be adding over the next couple of months.

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Filed under Education, Finance, Humor, Humour, Politics

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