“You’re looking very pleased with yourself”, she said.
“Am I?” Piers hoped he’d get over feeling intimidated by Margaret when he’d been in Whitehall a little longer but for now, it was all he could do to stifle an urge to apologise. “I think I’ve got the cuts he was looking for.”
Margaret raised her eyebrows, which made Piers want to go over his figures one more time. He forced himself to stand straight. He’d double checked his calculations and Margaret hadn’t seen them at all so if she looked sceptical, it couldn’t have anything to do with his spreadsheet skills.
“Where did you find these much desired cuts?”
“Well, I… here and there.”
Margaret looked Piers in the eye, which made him want to look down and scurry past her. Unfortunately, she was between the water cooler and the photocopier so he couldn’t get any closer to the minister’s office without touching her. He could at least keep his head up and look her in the eye.
“Piers, I’m not going to steal your idea,” said Margaret, “I’m just asking you what exactly it is that you plan to stimulate the minister’s enthusiasm with.”
“I was looking. At the, er, figures.” Piers swallowed. This was not how to talk to someone three bands above him who would be involved in his next performance appraisal. “I realised we can cut the fire brigade. That’s the sort of thing the minister was asking for last week.”
Margaret didn’t step aside. “How did you get to that?”
Piers shuffled his feet, wanting to get to the minister’s office as soon as he could. The minister was a Magdalen College man who had once played rugby for Harrow. He’d understand immediately, but that wasn’t something he could explain to Margaret.
It was easier to answer her question. “I looked at the figures and they were very clear. The more firemen attending a fire-”
“Firefighters,” said Margaret.
“The more firefighters attending a fire,” Piers forced himself not to sound irritated, “the greater the cost of the damage. There’s an obvious solution: reduce the number of firefighters responding to every call and we’ll reduce the damage. If we do that, we can cut the staffing numbers for the whole Fire and Rescue Service. It’s a full half billion off the annual budget.”
A note of triumph crept into Piers’s voice, much as he didn’t Margaret to think he was too self-satisfied. Still, he felt he’d earned the right to be a little pleased with himself.
Margaret’s frown suggested that she didn’t agree. Perhaps he needed to repeat his explanation slower.
“How long have you been here, Piers?” asked Margaret.
“And did you take three minutes to wonder why no one, in the many decades in which the civil service has been scrutinising the emergency services budget, has made the brilliant deduction that fires attended by more firefighters are more expensive because it’s the firefighters that cause the damage?”
Her tone of voice made him take a step back.
“I, er, I did wonder, yes.” Piers wasn’t going to admit that it hadn’t occurred to him. “I, you know, I’m new. Fresh pair of eyes.”
Margaret’s frown did not soften.
“We did stuff like this at Oxford. My dissertation was on…” Piers heard himself starting to babble. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Margaret, “because it wasn’t on the nature of correlation, was it?”
“Not exactly. It was on public service cuts under the Thatcher government. Got a first.”
“I’m sure you’ll go far.” Margaret’s voice was laced with something that might have been sarcasm or might have been resignation. “But before you put anything in front of the minister, I suggest you go back to your desk and Google ‘correlation’ and ‘causation’, and stay there until you properly understand the difference.”
“You don’t want me to take this to the minister?”
“No, Piers. I don’t want you to take that to the minister.” Margaret spoke carefully enunciated every word. “I want you to learn about correlation and causation. Have you got that?”
“You think the minister won’t understand it? That he won’t like it?”
Margaret rolled her eyes. “The minister’s a Magdalen man who expects people to be impressed that he played rugby for his school. I’m sure he won’t understand it. That’s why I’m afraid he might like it. Now go back to your desk and stay there until you understand what the problem with your brilliant suggestion is.”
Piers couldn’t help but hang his head. He wasn’t getting to the minister today.
Margaret wasn’t finished. “And I don’t want you to see the minister – about anything – until you’ve run it past me. Your job now is correlation and causation. Run along.”