Episode 4: Sir Humphrey’s Games

Sir Humphrey and Me
6 min readJan 24, 2021

“What did you do at work today?”

Most of the time for the career civil servant, the answer is humdrum and oblique — but occasionally, just occasionally, Sir Humphrey is let off his leash and the fireworks fly.

One of the more surreal moments in my civil service career was when, at daybreak, I found myself standing bleary-eyed in the Number 10 gardens holding a can of spray paint.

It was spring 2012, and I was working at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), laying the groundwork for what ended up being a fun and festive summer as the UK hosted its first Olympics and Paralympics since 1948.

Over the previous months, we’d been doing a lot of work to convey the potential benefits of Britain hosting the Games. The aim was to get people excited about the approaching carnival, rather than fixated on the likely realities of traffic congestion, dismal weather and vastly inflated hotel prices.

Across Whitehall, this was being described in urgent, hushed tones by the bigwigs as “advancing the legacy narrative”, and it involved the creation of a dedicated unit in the department’s slick Cockspur Street offices to invent and deliver a litany of policies to support it.

My own modest contribution to this jamboree of big picture thinking had been to draft a little report — a dossier we grandly called it — setting out the story of the UK’s legacy commitments.

It was made up of lots of big numbers, bright pictures of kids enjoying new sports clubs, some grand architectural plans related to the Zaha Hadid-inspired Olympic Park, and warm quotes from dignitaries, sportsmen and politicians: anyone we could find, basically, who was willing to say our very theoretical plan was very actually brilliant.

The aim then was to shove this report in the hands of the unwitting delegation of the International Olympic Committee who were visiting Downing Street to do their final inspection of the UK’s preparations — and from there to elicit, either out of bewildered courtesy or genuine conviction, a glowing testimonial from the IOC president Jacques Rogge about the wonders of our legacy ambitions.

When the plan succeeded[1] and we got the quote that London’s plans were, in fact, “a legacy blueprint” for all future Olympics (a suggestion which surprised even us), the DCMS’s small but tiger-ish media team went to work. For months, it wheeled out these words, delivered with an appropriate edge of menace, every time anyone in the media or wider public life dared to suggest that our gold-plated legacy plans were, in fact, copper-arsed bollocks.

But the spray can?

Yes, back to the spray can.

Why on earth was I about to commit an act of graffiti on this hallowed piece of turf overlooking the Rose Garden?

Well, the ruse we’d invented that day was to generate publicity for a report with no intrinsic news value by inviting the Prime Minister to play a game of badminton with some elite young sportspeople. At least, we reckoned, the press would enjoy a nice picture of Cameron in a sporting pose, and might promote the report briefly alongside it.

My job then, along with a couple of slightly put-upon colleagues wearily drawing out lengths of string along the grass alongside me, was to manufacture a perfectly-sized professional badminton court on the Downing Street lawn for him to play on.

As my hands squeezed the canister squirting out jets of white paint along those lines, we saw Cameron’s youngest daughter Florence, then just a baby, looking out of a top window with her nanny, eyeing with suspicion the strange people ruining her playground. Then, when the morning sun began to creep over the tree line, Larry the famous but surprisingly truculent[2] Downing Street cat settled close by, basking in its growing warmth.

We eventually finished our wonky approximation of a badminton court shortly before the talented kids arrived - and, about 15 minutes later, when a few photographers and the odd print hack were in position, the Prime Minister made his appearance.

Cameron, with his broad shoulders, imposing frame and slick hair, is an impressive specimen up close[3]. And today, he was amped up, ready for a game, very much meaning business, wearing … a full suit and tie.

Undeterred, he palmed his jacket off on some nearby aide before striding onto the court to greet the kids. Up went the shuttlecock into the air. Whiff went the racquet. And — air shot!

Still, he soon warmed up, thwacking the feather gaily through the air, and the stunt, we felt, had gone well. The press coverage next day suggested otherwise, being entirely comprised of Cameron gurning and straining his way through a series of awkward shots. “Cameron is crap at badminton” was the gist of the entirely non-existent news line the hacks had invented.

Worse was to come.

At a Paralympic event soon after, we’d lined up another sporting opportunity: a make-shift tennis court this time positioned in Trafalgar Square. We thought we’d learnt our lesson. This was, after all, Dave’s game of choice.

Things started well with Cameron wafting the ball to and fro smoothly. But then things became less peaceful. There was a presence … a shamble … a shock of blonde … and into the fray stumbled the Mayor of London at the time, a certain Boris Johnson.

Even back then, there was a strong sense that these were two men locked in a struggle for political supremacy: the king, and the pretender to the throne. And that rivalry and intrigue duly played out on the court.

With Cameron flipping his tie behind his shoulder and Johnson struggling to keep his ill-fitting shirt in his trousers, they began to biff and whack the tennis ball aggressively at each other. There was a drizzle of sweat and some loud grunting for a few minutes as the two men laid into each other.

And then it all went quiet. A cursory handshake, a forced grin for the camera, and both departed. Cameron went off to chair other meetings. Johnson hopefully went home for a shower.

Back in Downing Street though, my boss, a legendary government communicator familiar with the labyrinthine geography of Number 10, beckoned me over with a twinkle in his eye.

“I want to show you something,” he said.

We wandered through a series of corridors and tight passages, past the airless office bunkers in the depths of the building, crammed with the civil service’s most talented people.

“I think you’ll enjoy this,” he said, as he opened one last door to reveal the grand, familiar sweep of the Cabinet Room.

And there, arranged neatly on the table in front of starched placeholders, was the report I’d written: ready for the delegation of VIPs and the Prime Minister to peruse later if the conversation lagged.[4]

My own role that day was unseen, unrecognised and long forgotten: just as it should be for a civil servant. But at that moment, I couldn’t have been prouder.

I stood transfixed, basking in the glory, entirely oblivious to the faint trail of white paint my feet had traced along the Downing Street floors.

Notes:

[1] Rogge, I presume, was either awestruck by the power and beauty of my report, or drunk on wine dispensed in the Downing Street state rooms.

[2] I’ve never forgiven Larry for scratching me as I stopped to pet him after a meeting at Number 10. I’ve been told by several Downing Street insiders that this was very out of character, nevertheless I always rooted for Palmerston, the FCO’s scraggly black and white moggy, whenever the two came to blows.

[3] With his fine complexion, precise quiff and sharp suits, I’ve always felt Cameron bore a passing resemblance to Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho: more corpulent, yes, marginally less psychotic, and shot entirely in monochrome.

[4] As my first and only foray into book publishing, this report had a print run of about 400 and was largely gifted to civil servants as a thank you for their hard work. I can only imagine how delighted they were. A few months later, I saw a dog-eared copy in a bigwig’s office being used as a door stop.

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Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service