Of mandarins and ministers: Securing power, not just office

Fabian Society

Ed Miliband’s Labour government will take office in the toughest of circumstances: our public services on the rack because of cuts, a weak economy with hesitant growth based upon personal debt, housing assets and consumer spending, and with a record trade deficit. Despite the constant Tory mantra, ‘it’s the deficit, stupid!’, all their targets on borrowing, debt and the budget deficit have been missed. Their neoliberal austerity agenda is failing, like elsewhere in Europe. Labour will also face the small problem of ruling without a comfortable majority – or, if the pundits and pollsters are to be believed, no majority.

Labour’s first task will be to abandon the growth-choking austerity, as I have argued in my new book Back to the Future of Socialism, where I set out a coherent, evidence-based alternative, focusing initially on capital spending. But the key will be for incoming ministers to grip their briefs and departments in a way too many in government never do.

When I was appointed a minister by Tony Blair in May 1997, nobody had really taught me how to be one. Although during the 1997 election campaign I had read Gerald Kaufman’s instructive if somewhat satirical book How to be a Minister, I relied upon my own experience, instincts and political values.

Crucially important for an incoming minister is to have a plan; otherwise, the private office, diligent and supportive though I found all of mine in twelve years of government, quickly takes over and fills the diary, prompting busy hours of worthily processing papers and shuffling between meetings. Most important is to arrive on the first day with a sense of political priorities, even if the detail needs to be filled in. Otherwise even the most able ministers find themselves running to keep up, and sinking under piles of routine paperwork.

Many in our ministerial cadre, particularly though not exclusively below cabinet level, seemed more captured by their departments than not. However, Charles Clarke was a notable exception. In 2000, when we were both ministers of state, he in the Home Office, me in the Foreign Office, we had a meeting to discuss getting retired police officers to help with the transition from military peacekeeping to local civilian security, especially in African conflict zones. My officials had been frustrated by lack of co-operation from their Home Office counterparts and recommended a ministerial meeting to resolve the impasse.

Often on such occasions, a ministerial colleague would regurgitate their brief and the meeting would end, with officials happily going off to do what they love doing: reflect, write a fresh paper and prepare for another meeting. ‘Departmentalitis’ is rife within Whitehall, the Treasury by far the worst offender, so I was briefed up to persuade Charles of the merits of the proposal.

He arrived, plonked his burly frame on my office sofa, eyed up the grand old colonial surroundings, and politely interrupted my opening remarks: “Peter, I have looked at this carefully – and I completely agree with you.” His officials looked more startled than mine. “Now shall we tell them all to work out the details as quickly as they can, and let’s discuss some politics?” As the room emptied, we reflected upon what proved to be a common perspective on the shortcomings and successes of the Blair government and how to make it better. How refreshing it was to deal with Charles.

It is pointless being a minister unless you are prepared give political leadership. Although the legendary Yes Minister television series, where civil servants run rings around their hapless minister often comes uncomfortably close to the mark, my experience was rather different. Officials, I found, valued strong political leadership and direction – ministers who knew their own minds – provided they were willing to take advice. The best private secretaries ensured delivery of my ministerial decisions whilst keeping a wary eye for propriety and telling me things I might not want to hear. The best officials had a ‘can do’ rather than a ‘can’t do’ attitude and, if the civil service only adopted that motto as the norm it would be massively more efficient and immeasurably better at delivery.

Maintaining a grip on the ministerial brief involved striking a balance between the routine and the significant. My years in government suggested several lessons.

Around 80 per cent of the pile of papers and files in your in-tray or red box was straightforward and could in principle have been handled by the departmental machine. You needed to keep a weather eye on this bulk because it might contain elephant traps or plain mistakes. It might also contain what I called ‘piss-off’ messages to MPs, couched in turgid prose by drafting officials blissfully oblivious to their impact. You couldn’t simply sign off this material even if tired or late at night. However, for me, doing the job successfully meant focusing as clearly as possible on the 20 per cent where a difference really can be made. I also ‘did my red boxes overnight’, keeping on top of the workload, leaving more time to prioritise and focus on the politics.

Are we in office but not in power? That age old question for Labour governments will be worth every one of Ed’s new Labour ministers asking themselves every day.