15 March 2016

Francis Maude stepped down as Trade and Investment Minister last week after less than a year in post. His replacement is Mark Price, until recently the Managing Director of Waitrose. Nicola Hughes examines what advice our Ministers Reflect archive has to offer the new minister.

Mark Price is the latest Trade Minister to come into government from business; his predecessors include ex-CBI Director Digby Jones, bankers Mervyn Davies and Stephen Green, and former BT chief Ian Livingston. Maude was an experienced politician as well as a former businessman, and the post – in various guises – has been held by some ‘career’ politicians like Douglas Alexander. But, as being Trade Minister involves negotiating deals, promoting inward investment and UK export, it seems sensible that someone with proven business acumen should do it.

Coming into government from another sector is a culture shock: such ministers might have been CEOs of multinationals yet have little idea how to work the Whitehall and Westminster machines, (though Price has a headstart from serving as a Cabinet Office non-executive). These specialist, Lords ministers are affectionately known as GOATs – part of a ‘government of all the talents’ – and currently include the pensions campaigner Ros Altmann, economist Jim O’Neill, tech. entrepreneur Joanna Shields and businessman David Freud.

Our Ministers Reflect archive includes interviews with a number of former GOATs, two of whom – Lords Green and Livingston – have previously held the Trade role. What is their advice?

1. Get your head around the House of Lords Price has been given a peerage and will take the Tory Whip. How actively political he’ll be is a personal choice – Lord Green readily admitted to being ‘a floating voter’, with little interest in Party matters.

Lord Livingston called the House of Lords “a very, very new world to get used to”, full of odd customs. “I could stand up and speak to 2,000 people for 30 minutes without a problem, but when you stand up in the House of Lords and you can see the dent on the desk where Churchill, during the war, used to bang his ring down… it’s the weight of Parliament”, he continued. Price will be surrounded by history and by experts and expected to speak authoritatively on a range of topics, so could be forgiven for feeling slightly awestruck. Lords ministers can find they have little support in understanding the House, partly because “officialdom is quite Commons-orientated”.

2. Prepare for contrasts between Whitehall and the private sector

Experience in big organisations was an asset for ministers we interviewed, who could transfer their operational or management skills. Entrepreneur Lord Marland felt that “empowering the Civil Service was a very easy fit because you were used to managing people”.

But Whitehall will feel pretty different from Waitrose. For example, ex-financier Chris Huhne reflected that government has “far more objectives which it is constantly having to juggle” than business. Price won’t have as much say in HR matters as he’s used to: “when I arrived the Head of UKTI was leaving and they’d agreed he could leave in a couple of weeks. Just appalling…” (Livingston). The culture will be different: “I thumped away at the tub of making sure that everybody read the Financial Times every day” (Green). He may also find the technology, the quality of management information and level of commercial skill sets a little different.

3. Use your expertise – but don’t think you know it all

Outsiders bring expertise to government, but this has risks. Steve Webb – who was an MP but also a pensions expert before joining the Department for Work and Pensions – commented, “if you go in just thinking ‘I know the answers and can decree them’ then you get very frustrated very quickly”. Although GOATs we spoke to did feel some specific skill sets were missing in the Civil Service, they mostly found the quality of the officials excellent; Price can use their knowledge and challenge to his advantage.

4. Be ready for the spotlight

GOATs often have less interest in publicity than their more politically-minded colleagues, but they should be prepared for scrutiny, advises Lord Green: “As somebody who is not a professional politician, it takes some getting used to the degree to which you’re in the public eye, even as a junior minister. The fact that The Sunday Times, right at my appointment, went through the accounts of HSBC and started to look at pension contributions, for example.” The Prime Minister and Chancellor are keenly interested in trade, so Price can also expect attention from Downing Street too.

5. Talk to your predecessors

Price has had the benefit of a transition period to his new job, which should have been spent doing his homework. Certainly Lords Green and Livingston have a wealth of advice about handling the key arms-length body UK Trade & Investment and sorting out export finance, as well as tips on the role itself like working across two departments and handling Parliament.

Outsiders coming into ministerial posts have a mixed record of success. The EU referendum could make the trade job even more challenging than usual, but with the right advice and support at the start, business leaders like Mark Price can bring a different – and valuable – type of expertise and experience to the ministerial ranks.