Boris Johnson has given us a new mantra: Leave home. Forget the NHS. Save Pret | Marina Hyde

The government is urging us back to the office. Given the commute delays, they’ll soon want us to sleep there too

Like me, you will have been transfixed to discover that failed former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott is being lined up for a senior role on the UK’s new Board of Trade. What a worthy exchange of assets between our two great nations – like learning that Theresa May had accepted a part on Neighbours, possibly as some kind of Mrs Mangel reboot. Suggested plotlines could include May driving round Ramsay Street telling any immigrant characters to go home. (Which, let’s face it, wouldn’t exactly require starting the engine.)

Then again, arguably something far more ridiculous has already happened: Theresa May is now paid £100,000 a time to make speeches, presumably at nihilist conventions, or in dedicated art spaces at avant garde parties. “Siegfried! Let me mist you with absinthe, then you must call into the installation room – Theresa May is performing ‘The Cough’.”

Back to Abbott, though, whose appointment has yet to be confirmed. Interesting that we should look beyond our own talent pool for such a crucial role. Then again, I remember watching Nigel Farage’s penultimate resignation speech as Ukip leader – or perhaps his antepenultimate; one always lost track. Anyway, this was the one shortly after the 2016 referendum, and Nigel had just heard that the UK lacked qualified trade negotiators. “So let’s headhunt them!” he bellowed. “Let’s get them from Singapore, from Asia … ” From the remaindered bin in Australia?

In terms of what Abbott would bring to the UK frontman job, I think we could expect something quite special. After all, it was on a 2015 trip to Tasmania to announce subsidies for exporters that the then prime minister visited an onion farm. As the farmer showed his wares, Abbott took it upon himself to grab an onion (skin still on) and bite deeply into it. Yup. That sounds like just the sort of presentational genius that post-Brexit UK would try to hire.

In the days after, even the farmer felt moved to remark: “You don’t really expect the PM to walk in, bite on an onion and eat it, leaf and all.” Don’t you? For many of us, that quote is just a reminder that the year 2015 in Australia – or almost anywhere else – was a more innocent and hopeful time. Randomly grabbing a raw onion and chowing down hard on it is now at the more harmlessly optimistic end of what we might easily expect any number of prime ministers or presidents to do, at least two or three times a news cycle.

Anyway, it’s good to know we could appoint a guy who might see his role pushing British exports as an escalating scale of rugby club dares. Tony’s already boshed an onion, so let’s assume that “banging the drum” for UK trade will involve him visiting an aerospace manufacturer, where he will drink a pint of urine; touring a pharmaceutical headquarters, where he will perform 200 naked press-ups; and headlining a global trade conference, where three great mates will record something on a phone that results in a six-week trial at the Old Bailey. Don’t worry! Everyone gets acquitted like normal.

In the meantime, how are you enjoying the edifying spectacle of ministers putting the frighteners on their own people? A major government push to herd office workers back to city centres was trailed today in Johnsonian jazz mag the Daily Telegraph, beneath the thoughtful headline “Go back to work or risk losing your job”. Or to put it another way … Leave home. Forget the NHS. Save Pret.

A fascinating article in Wired this week suggested that in many multifloor modern office blocks, lifts are the big problem. Companies are advising people to bring in their food at the start of the day, and stay put on their floor – though even queuing twice daily to be one of the maximum two people in any lift can add 20 minutes to each end of the commute. Still, hopefully we’re moving to the point where the government declares that if people want to keep their jobs, it would make a lot more sense if they showed their commitment to efficiency by sleeping at the office, ideally in a nappy.

For now, I’m not saying the threats smack of desperation. But by Monday, you wouldn’t rule out Grant Shapps standing on top of the Shard screaming: “GATHER YOUR SHOP-BOUGHT CRAYFISH SANDWICHES AND RETURN TO THE PANOPTICON!”

At least the government’s war on the civil service is going well, as another permanent secretary takes a bullet to protect a useless cabinet minister. I know literally nothing about Jonathan Slater, who is departing from the education department. But given the minister in question is Gavin Williamson, this is a bit like Elmo using Albert Einstein as a meat shield.

Furthermore, Slater’s sacking – he’s the fifth top-level mandarin to go this year – suggests the position of “permanent” secretary now has all the job security of the old al-Qaida number three gig. Talk about dead men’s shoes. The next permanent secretary should expect to turn up on their first day to receive a shifty lecture about hotdesking, and a request to use their own Gmail account. He or she will be sacked within a fortnight, obviously, though lift queues mean they won’t reach the pavement till October.

Other things to look forward to on Monday include the return of Spadulike to Downing Street, as Dominic Cummings goes back to work after a medical absence, followed by a convalescence in the scenic north-east. No doubt increasingly disgruntled backbench Tory MPs will be thrilled to have the mastermind back – this Jafar in a gilet, this Wizard of Boz, this Scrappy Don’t, this Lee Twatwater (one for the anoraks, there). We’ll assume Cummings has now caught up with the government’s many recent U-turns, having watched the summer on tape delay.

Although, once you’re up to 11, it’s not so much U-turns as an accidental doughnut – an ongoing, control-free, 360-degree permaspin. Excitingly, I keep reading that Boris Johnson is now going to take “personal charge” of the government. It’s certainly encouraging to see him approach the driving seat. When he was GQ motoring correspondent, Johnson was given to doing things like double parking outside Scotland Yard, and frequently simply lost his test cars. As his secretary told one biographer: “Boris tended to miss the session at which he would have been shown by the delivery driver how to use the car. He’ll ring me and ask, ‘How do I use the door?’”

The prime minister’s approach to government embodies that same attention to detail. For me, the quote of last week came from a longtime ally of Boris Johnson, who told the Financial Times: “At the beginning of every big job Boris takes over, he prefers to stand back and act as chairman … But there comes a point at which he gets fed up and personally intervenes. I think we’re quite near that now.” What can you say? Other than: righto. In your own time, luv.

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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