Fifteen Minutes of Power: The Uncertain Life Of British Ministers

Peter Riddell

Profile Books, £16.99

SHOULD political wannabees be seeking some holiday literature, here is a tome which they really should read (preferably through their fingers).

Those already involved in the game of rapidly changing thrones through which the Westminster parliament goes about its business will also find it instructive; though doubtless less surprising.

The anecdotage Riddell has woven through this fascinating/depressing account of Whitehall life has been informed not just through a 40-year career observing politics as a journalist and commentator, but by the sometimes startlingly frank recollections of former ministers interviewed by him and others during his tenure as Director of the Institute of Government.

His broad brush conclusion is that governments have far too many ministers – to boost the payroll vote – and have found ingenious ways of circumventing rules on the maximum number permissible.

More widely he argues that at all levels ministers are generally unprepared for their role, often lack focus and or direction, and believe that half a dozen reasonably arresting soundbites are a faster route to preferment than the slog of policy development backstage.

This desperate desire to be noticed is fuelled in part by the dispiriting knowledge that their tenure is likely to be too brief to have much effect. As Riddell observes: “The British breed ministers more than any other country, but they tend to have a much shorter active life in office than our favourite pets… few make it past the four years of the golden hamster.”

Neither is this a party political affair. The Blair-Brown era got through nine Africa ministers and 13 Europe ministers in 13 years. John Reid, meanwhile, spent his time under Tony Blair in a departmental revolving door.

And, says Riddell, even though coalitions make reshuffles more complex, by the time of the 2015 election only 18 out of 121 were off to work in the morning to the same office as five years before. Since 2010 they had appointed seven different Derpartment for Culture, Media and Sport secretaries, and six each at justice and the Derpartment for Work and Pensions. It hardly argues for continuity of thought.

Meanwhile, the civil service operates its own version of rapid churn across departments, which means the country can suffer the double political whammy of new ministers and a fresh batch of civil servants, all endeavouring to get up to speed simultaneously with unfamiliar departmental briefs.

The civil service is portrayed here as nothing like the manipulative, super-thwarters of Yes Minister fame, but neither does it get a clean bill of health from the political classes.

Former chancellors like Kenneth Clarke and Alistair Darling are uniformly impressed by the quality at the Treasury, but Clarke is rather less flattering about the Department of Health. “You can declare war more peacefully than you can reform a health care system,” he observes.

All agree that the tone is set by the Permanent Secretary, leading to some departments encouraging debate and democracy within the ranks, and others, notably the Home Office, being described as hierarchical and staid.

And most concur that civil servants are only really concerned with what the Cabinet Secretary thinks (or can be suggested to think); less are interested in the life and times of junior ministers. As one senior civil servant wearily concludes: “The more junior ministers you have, the more work you have to find for them.”

Many people outside the system doubtless imagine that incoming Prime Ministers have a carefully thought through plan for inserting round pegs in round holes. Hardly. For one thing, says Riddell, very few new appointees imagine they need special training, supposing that life as a shadow minister provides a sufficient grounding.

The interviews give the lie to all such rose-tinted mythology. John Reid had done a lot of relevant reading for his first post as armed forces minister over the years, but hardly had much time to use it, holding, as he did, nine posts in 10 years.

On his first day at transport he was a man without a plan or indeed a sense of direction. “They were doing a roads review in parliament which consisted of me at the dispatch box and Glenda Jackson, the under secretary, tearing pages out of a large briefing book to put in front of me when somebody asked about the A373 going through somewhere or other,” he tells Riddell.

Nicky Morgan, from the other side of the political divide, underscored the loneliness of the short distance ministerial appointment. “It’s quite extraordinary that we put people in those positions with absolutely no training whatsoever, no transitional period, no handover period. People outside government, outside Whitehall, cannot believe this is what happens.”

Whilst poor Patrick McLaughlin, having been finally made a roads minister by Mrs Thatcher after a weary stint in the whips office, found his boss, Cecil Parkinson, wanted him to tackle aviation and shipping. The latter was unmoved by Patrick’s saying that a landlocked constituency and a fear of flying hardly made him the ideal choice.

Part of this ministerial ignorance is a self-inflicted wound, Riddell believes, noting the reluctance of future ministers to avail themselves of what few external training initiatives are on offer. Some because they think it would be presumptuous; rather more because they believe they already have the necessary skillset.

When Patricia Hewitt set up training sessions for an incoming Labour administration in 1997, Messrs Blair, Brown and Prescott didn’t feel the need to attend. Those who did suddenly learned they couldn’t just fire off press releases any more and “were shocked when they found out how long it takes from policy decision to implementation.”

Peter Riddell also reminds us that neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron had ever held so much as the most junior of ministerial posts before becoming PM, which left them in less than blissful ignorance of what these jobs entailed.

Chris Mullin’s wonderfully acerbic diaries, briefly quoted, asserted that the pond life at the foot of the ministerial ladder were not on any meaningful radar: “My existence now (after four months in post) is almost entirely pointless…the only possible excuse for doing this is the hope that it will lead to something better.”

In Mullin’s case, as we know, that something better wasn’t on the conventional ladder at all, but chairing a significant select committee whose value has risen exponentially since they became elected rather than appointed.

The reverse verdicts in the book – civil servants' views on senior ministers – were most flattering where the cabinet secretaries had clarity of purpose, offered leadership and were pretty low maintenance. Michael Heseltine scored highly on this grid whilst, in Riddell’s view, the ministers who “make the weather” included Barbara Castle, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Kenneth Clarke, Gordon Brown and George Osborne. Significantly, he notes, most of them were chancellors of the exchequer “and nearly half of them went straight into cabinet.”

His “B” team includes Tony Crosland, Norman Tebbit, Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett, Peter Mandelson and Michael Gove, suggesting that though their impact might be more limited, it sometimes lasted longer. And he has kind words, too, for the worthies who hit few headlines but keep the essential wheels of government well-oiled and turning; relatively unsung labourers at the state coalface like George Thomson, Merlyn Rees, Willie Whitelaw, George Younger, Norman Fowler, Margaret Beckett and Alan Johnson.

All of us might find some reason to quibble with these lists, or to move some into different categories, but it’s instructive to remember that few people have observed the machinations of the political world up closer, more personal, and from as many different angles as Peter Riddell.