Whitehall’s four-day week
‘What you doing here?’ says a cheerful security guard as I walk through the Houses of Parliament at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. ‘It’s early closing day.’ He’s right. The corridors are silent; the chambers are bare. There are a few tourists with their guides, some more guards, the odd cleaner … and that’s it.
Where is everyone? Well, Friday is constituency day, as people in politics are quick to tell you. Our elected representatives and ministers are off running ‘surgeries’ with real people. What the insiders tend not to divulge, however, is that when the bosses aren’t around, their underlings sneak off early for the weekend. Friday in Westminster is poets day — ‘piss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday’.
On a recent Friday, I rang most of the Cabinet’s private parliamentary offices, which should be open even if the members are out. I tried Eric Pickles, Andrew Lansley, William Hague, Michael Gove, and Danny Alexander. No answers. Vince Cable’s office referred me automatically to his constituency, while at Andrew Mitchell’s and Theresa May’s, the lines were engaged. The only secretaries of Secretaries who picked up were Iain Duncan Smith’s and Ken Clarke’s — though Ken’s lady didn’t mind saying that she was working from home.
Parliament isn’t government, of course. Think of all those ministerial offices, the departments of state and their manifold executive branches. The wheels of power must keep spinning in them, you would imagine, even on Fridays.
But you’d be wrong. Earlier this year, a major government department — I’ve been asked not to say which, but it’s a big one, I promise — was preparing to announce an important policy on a Monday. The week before the launch, the special advisers and civil servants spent four days preparing the details, fine-tuning the media strategy and so on.