Chris Mullin MP offers prospective junior ministers a survival guide to the ‘foothills’ of government
Election Day plus four. Your party has just won a great victory. Having handed out the big jobs the new Prime Minister is taking a well-deserved weekend off. It is now Monday and you are anxiously awaiting The Call.
For the past two years you have been diligently shadowing, let us say, the Europe portfolio as a junior member of the Foreign Affairs team. You know everything there is to know about the Lisbon Treaty and the Common Agricultural Policy, you maybe even speak a couple of European languages. You are raring to go.
At last, the moment comes. ‘Are you available to take a call from the Prime Minister?’ inquires a detached voice. Then, ‘Please hold.’ Your heart is pounding, you try to tell yourself this is no big deal – you have been on first-name terms with your leader for the last five years. But it is a big deal and your heart continues to pound.
The minutes tick by. There is a lot of clicking. The voice at the other end says, ‘Sorry, the Prime Minister is tied up at the moment, he’ll call again in 15 minutes.’ An hour later your BlackBerry vibrates. It is he, ‘Charles…’ he says. Or Sharon or Dominic or whatever, ‘I want you to go to the Department of Folding Deckchairs…’ Your heart sinks. ‘But…’ Do you call him, ‘Dave’, ‘Gordon’ or ‘Prime Minister’?
‘Don’t worry,’ he says, sensing the disappointment in your voice. ‘It’s only a starting job. If you make a success of it, I’ll find you something more up your street in the Foreign Office or the Home Office…’
And with that he is gone. Off to tell some other poor sod that things haven’t quite worked out as expected.
Think it couldn’t happen to you? Think again. The allocation of the junior ministerial jobs is utterly random. My friend Joyce Quin, who diligently shadowed the Europe post for several years in opposition, awoke one morning to discover that she was minister of prisons, never having set foot in a prison in her life.
Doug Henderson, who shadowed one of the defence portfolios up to the 1997 election awoke to find he was the Europe minister. Worse still, within 24 hours he found himself on a plane to Brussels to represent the British interest among a lot of urbane, multilingual foreigners who knew their subject inside out. Oh yes, the learning curve is steep.
But, back to the Department of Folding Deckchairs. You are now the lowest form of life in a vast empire. From here on in, life will be a cascade of all the things your many superiors do not wish to do.
A survival strategy is called for. Here are a few tips. First, you will have a private office full of bright young people, anxious to please. Try to conceal your disappointment from them. Be nice to them and they will be nice to you.
Two, focus on what matters. Recognise that you are not going to change the world. Instead of spreading yourself thinly, home in on three or four issues where you might make a difference and stick with them.
Three, avoid pointless activity. There is a huge amount of it in government. From the outset, you must get into the habit of occasionally saying ‘no’, if you do not wish to be taken for granted. Do not waste time ploughing through vacuous, jargon-ridden strategies and action plans on which your opinion is not being sought.
Four, avoid taking red boxes home at weekends. A Tory minister of my acquaintance on arrival at a new department circulated a note saying that any official who was minded to make a submission after lunchtime on Thursday should include his home phone number since the minister would almost certainly want to ring and discuss the matter over the weekend. Result, weekend paperwork miraculously dried up.
Five, ring-fence quality time for your family – especially if you have young children. Politics is littered with broken marriages, don’t let yours be one of them.
Finally, if it all ends in tears and the Prime Minister decides that he has to ‘let you go’, remember that there are other things in life.
Chris Mullin was a minister in three departments. His diaries, A View from the Foothills, are published in paperback.