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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Behind the Whitehall curtains

Today's Times has a series of fascinating extracts from a report by the Institute for Government think tank called Ministers Reflect. It involves twenty former members of the coalition government lifting the lid on life behind Whitehall’s closed doors:

Liam Fox, the coalition’s first defence secretary, reveals that he was privately opposed to David Cameron’s decision to intervene in Libya. He said: “I wasn’t in favour of getting involved in Libya. Both the American defence secretary and I were worried about events in other places . . . and were very hesitant about committing more forces.”

Chris Huhne, the former Lib Dem energy secretary, confirms that he said “We never negotiate with terrorists” to aides telling him to talk to George Osborne’s department. The Treasury has “massive problems”, he says, including a worryingly high turnover of staff, and needs to be challenged more often.

For David Willetts, the former Tory universities minister, the real villain is a “completely dysfunctional” cabinet Office. “It imposes absurd things on you. It then runs away when things don’t work out and always blames you.”

Sir Nick Harvey sets out the hierarchy of people he needs to satisfy to remain a Minister, whilst Jeremy Browne reveals his dissatisfaction at being reshuffled:

The latter could do worse than to read the account of Sir Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem minister under Dr Fox, who took his civil servants through the “hierarchy” of the people he had to satisfy.

“I said, ‘Well you only get to participate in politics at all if you keep your family happy, you only get to be the candidate if you keep your local party happy, you only get elected to parliament if you keep your constituents happy, and you only get chosen to be a minister if you keep your party in Westminster happy’. And by the time I had kept all of them happy, I was at the disposal of the department.”

His Lib Dem colleague Jeremy Browne reveals he was not delighted with his move from the Foreign Office to the Home Office — “like going from an Oxbridge senior common room to going to work for a local council”. The feeling of his new Conservative colleagues appears to have been mutual as his new job title was discussed. “One of the suggestions was I’d be the minister of state for ‘crime reduction and prevention’, which, if you do the acronym, was arguably quite close to what some people might have wanted my responsibilities to amount to.”

Tim Loughton, suspecting an ambush after he became the Tory education minister, found a novel way to establish his authority. “The [permanent secretary] was about to sort of kick off with ‘Now minister, this is what you’ll be doing and these are the priorities’. I said, ‘Now, everybody have a jelly baby’. When they were all tucking into their jelly babies, I said, ‘Now we’re going to do psychometric testing to see how everybody eats their jelly babies’.”

It really is like Yes Minister.
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