“My first day at the Home Office felt very much like the first day at primary school”, says former business minister Richard Harrington, in his Ministers Reflect interview. He was referring to the fact that there “is no manual or training guide” for either MPs or ministers when they take on their new role.
The feeling of being thrown in at the deep end is a common theme in Ministers Reflect interviews. Lord O’Shaughnessy, who was a health minister 2016-18, said that following his appointment he “spent most of Christmas nervously reading everything I could about healthcare and then landed on Tuesday 3 January in the middle of a winter crisis”. Other than the briefing packs on their new policy portfolio prepared by civil servants, ministers receive no formal training or induction for what are some of the most challenging jobs in public life.
While only a few government ministers have a significant public profile, they all deal with serious issues that affect different aspects of life across the UK. George Eustice, a long-serving agriculture minister, chaired COBRA meetings to agree the government’s response to winter flooding. Steve Brine, who served as a junior health minister between 2017 and 2019, was responsible for the government’s plan for tackling child obesity. Both found that their portfolios involved responsibility for areas which they would never have imagined. Tracey Crouch, who held a wide-ranging brief covering sport, civil society, loneliness and other issues, said that “the one briefing that literally drained the blood from my face” was the information that she was responsible for royal funerals.
Some ministers have pre-existing experience of their policy portfolio – but they can’t prepare for everything
Of course, ministers do not arrive in the job with no prior experience whatsoever; many have worked on related areas before they get the call from Downing Street. Tracey Crouch also had “a personal passion for sport”, which, coupled with her experience on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, meant she felt “very relaxed” taking on the sports minister role.
Similarly, George Eustice revealed that David Cameron gave him the job of farming minister due in part to his background in farming and his experience on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. He noted, however, that his committee membership couldn’t prepare him fully for the reality of being a minister, as the decisions he had to make required “a whole level of detail beyond what a select committee would typically look at”.
Steve Brine had a head-start understanding his new role, having served as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the health secretary before becoming a fully-fledged minister. He explained that “being a PPS is a perfect preparation for being a minister, in the sense that you see inside the machine”. This experience also made the first day easier for him, because “I knew all the people and I still had my pass.” However, on starting the ministerial role, there were still things that surprised him, notably “the sheer machine gun fire of health debates” in the House of Commons and the quantity of parliamentary questions he would have to answer.
While no two ministerial jobs are identical, there are similarities that mean new ministers can learn from their predecessors. Our interviewees had lots of advice for future ministers, including to ask the right questions of officials; to treat Parliament and civil servants with respect; and to take the time to learn their brief properly.
Richard Harrington went further, saying the government should provide “training for MPs who want to be ministers… about what a private office is, what they can expect from the civil service, what they can’t expect from the civil service, because I think learning it on the hoof is not the right way of doing it”. The Institute provides bespoke professional development for those ministers and their teams who would like it, but there is no central process to ensure ministers get up to speed on their jobs before they start. Given that they are responsible for serious matters which affect everyday life, helping ministers properly prepare for their jobs would clearly be to the benefit of us all.