At the sharp end of public policy, the civil service is full of serious people making serious decisions — many of them with life-or-death consequences. It is as far removed as you can get from the inane fripparies and japes of Sir Humphrey and his team in the Yes, Minister series.
Deep in the bowels of the Cabinet Office is Cabinet Office Meeting Room A, home of the Civil Contingencies Unit and the bunkered location where senior politicians chair important meetings when a large ball of the proverbial hits the fan. It’s better known by its popular acronym: Cobra.
Cobra is, in effect, the UK’s command centre in times of national crisis. It’s where the bigwigs and their political masters go to develop swift and decisive plans to ward off disaster, or gather together for a collective panic while the country burns.
Being essentially untrustworthy, I never got the chance to experience any Cobra meetings myself as I didn’t have the requisite security clearance.
There are several layers of security checks you can pass through in the civil service. The baseline clearance, which gives you a standard blue security pass that I had, means you know the square root of not much at all.
The next level, called counter terrorism clearance, will get you in on a few of the juicier things going on, but still essentially means you know about as much as the minister’s chauffeur, butler or hairdresser.
It’s the top-level clearance, known as developed vetting — or enhanced developed vetting for those seeking the full James Bond experience — that gets you access to the really good stuff. Its green pass gives you the omniscience of a god, a fast track to a CBE and the right to butcher any of the Crown’s swans at will.
It also means that the poor sod at the Cabinet Office who carries out the checks now has indelible knowledge of your recent internet history and some pretty juicy insights into your sexual foibles and drug consumption habits.
Even though I never participated myself, I learnt to recognise the ghostly signs of Cobra being “stood up” (to use the operational lingo) whenever I’d see senior members of the team talk quietly on their phone, blanche and quietly leave the building after scooping up all of their belonging.
This was Sir Humphrey on a war footing, and whether it was a mortal threat to UK agriculture like foot and mouth, industrial action threatening continuity of supplies as in the fuel blockades of 2002, or the emergence of killer viruses like Swine Flu or Covid-19, it was Cobra that would crank into gear to be the focal point for government decision-making.
Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t get involved in helping the government prepare for possible disaster. There was a huge amount done ahead of the Olympics to make sure government departments and their agencies were ready to cope with the worst that could possibly happen.
Some of this involved what was known as “table top exercises” where teams from across government and the emergency services would gather to test themselves against a fictional scenario. These were so-called because each table would host representatives from each of the various agencies involved, who would deliberate to decide how they’d approach the problem before comparing notes with the others.
There was always an interesting dynamic at play here, with the civil servants’ desire for process and rigorous intellectual debate being summarily batted aside by rough-edged, no-nonsense police commanders or fire chiefs who wanted direct, practical and immediately actionable solutions.
More advanced than these were the live scenarios where you’d actually sit in your department and participate in war game exercises, watching specially produced news bulletins and social media feeds that would keep you up-to-date on how the chosen disaster was unfolding in real time. It was very cool stuff and probably cost a fortune.
These exercises had wonderfully innocent code names like Yellow Hammer or Blackbird, and covered all manner of things that could’ve gone wrong during the Games: a major fire at a tube station, a bomb alert in one of the stadium venues, or a dark-skinned athlete of nameless origin absconding from the athletes’ village to claim asylum, causing a major diplomatic incident.
In hindsight, all of these scenarios seem charmingly innocent compared to the horrors we had to endure over the last 18 months, but they felt at the time extremely real and dangerous. As such, I think the sessions succeeded in their purpose, which was to help wake everyone up to the fact that we’d all be on the frontline if things went wrong. We needed to be ready and we were.
As it transpired, the Games went off smoothly, the only minor wrinkles being: the M4 collapsing a few weeks before all the athletes and foreign dignitaries arrived at Heathrow, thereby cutting off their main route into London; an obligatory outsourcing scandal involving a firm the government had hired to sort out security, which resulted in the army being called in to do a job the private sector proved incapable of; and most maddening of all, the endlessly dull and rainy weather that the UK experienced in the run up to the opening ceremony.
So worried, in fact, were the big wigs that our Games would be a wash-out that they bulk-purchased huge quantities of rain proof plastic ponchos ready to be given out to spectators to ward off hypothermia if the dreadful weather persisted. I have no idea what Sir Humphrey eventually did with these vast stocks of plastic — part of me worries they ended up being repurposed as PPE for the more expendable bits of the NHS during the initial phases of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Having set up a big communications unit in the Treasury to man the fort during the Games in anticipation of disaster, we’d sequestered scores of government communications people from other departments to help us out in case of emergency. But once the Olympic flame was lit and the sport began there was actually very little to do.
Along with the rest of the nation, we watched a lot of sport, ate pizza and staged relay races around the office during quiet evening shifts. We also hung bunting around the office, including union jack flags, pictures of Mo Farah and other sporting paraphernalia — only to be told by the Treasury’s officious maintenance team that this was against health and safety regulations and that we had to take them down immediately.
A quick call from one of the cannier media operators in the team to the SpAds upstairs sorted this. In the next morning’s tabloids, we read that the Chancellor George Osbourne was personally clamping down on the “Whitehall killjoys” stopping civil servants from enjoying the festivities, with an editorial fulsomely praising his patriotic zeal. We weren’t bothered by the maintenance team again.
 I skirt briefly over Cobra here for my own protection since divulging any of the discussions that take place in it contravenes the Official Secrets Act which all civil servant are bound to for life. Breaking these rules means I could find myself enjoying an extended career at another one of Her Majesty’s fine institutions.