23 March 2016

The Institute for Government has published seven new interviews as part of its Ministers Reflect archive. Nicola Hughes reviews the highlights.

Today’s release includes fascinating interviews with Westminster veteran Kenneth Clarke, champion of green Conservatism Gregory Barker and leading Liberal Democrat David Laws. They shed further light on what it’s like to be a minister, relationships between politicians and their officials, and how to do the job well. All seven interviews are worth a read in full, but in the meantime here are four themes that stand out.

Tenure

We’ve argued before that constant turnover isn’t good for policy and these ministers felt that having a decent period of time in a department helped them to be more effective. Ken Clarke in his “much reshuffled career” managed to get his head around new briefs and set priorities quickly but still felt that “the two I enjoyed most were Health and the Treasury because I did them for the longest.” The Home Office by contrast:

… was one of my shortest. I had just about sorted in my own mind what I really wanted to concentrate on, which was mainly police and prison reform, and I got reshuffled again because Norman Lamont went under a political bus. So instead of having the whole parliament, which I anticipated, for what would have been some glorious battles with the Police Federation and the Prison Officers Association, I then suddenly found I was zipped over to the Treasury.”

Clarke also noted the different style of departments: the Home Office was “staid and traditional and very hierarchical” compared to the “debating society” feel of the Treasury.

Similarly Michael Moore felt that after 18 months as Scottish Secretary he “was in a groove” yet didn’t realise he “was going to be sacked until the phone call came” in 2013. Moore understood the realpolitik but also regretted the lack of “review or informal assessment” or objective setting for ministers. Former Care Minister Paul Burstow had a similar experience: “I don’t think I lost the role on the basis of merit.”

Media

These ministers took different approaches to media. David Laws for instance felt it wasn’t a priority for him:

“… you can use the time more productively provided you accept that that does mean that you give up on some of the sort of public relations, media stuff and be out visiting. That suited me fine in terms of my interests...”

By contrast former Transport minister Stephen Hammond “would certainly encourage all ministers to think about having their own press officer… there’s huge numbers of chances for exploitation of bringing out government policy and creating that impression of effectiveness and competence which we miss.”

Ken Clarke also felt that keeping up a high media profile was important, especially in a crisis:

“… they are all advised now to vanish, as soon as there is any row, and put some obscure junior minister in, which I think was, like many of today’s fashionable public relations techniques, a complete failure.”

Coalition scrutiny

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our Liberal Democrat interviewees reflected on Coalition dynamics and their frustrations, at times, at feeling isolated in departments. For Baroness Kramer there were useful lessons from the additional scrutiny coalition provides:

“… decisions, ideas, projects could be challenged as a natural part of a process rather than stamped through because everyone felt they were all on the same team and therefore shouldn’t say anything or examine an idea. The Quad [the Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders and top Treasury ministers from each party, which operated during the Coalition] was a very good example as a venue for challenging proposed policies. And I think that is something that it would be really worthwhile trying to build in to single-party government.”

Special advisers

Echoing the sentiments of other ministers we’ve interviewed as part of this series, Greg Barker argued that:

“There was this commitment when we came into government to reduce the number of spads [special advisers] and it was a totally huge error. Particularly where you have an area like DECC that is quite technical and specialist, I think [you must] ensure that you have proper, efficient, professional delivery of policy, but through a prism that reflects the values of the minister, and reflects their priorities.”

Baroness Kramer felt “very isolated” without a full-time spad. Laws and Clarke – who is more cautious about spads – emphasised the benefits of advisers who have considerable policy expertise. Laws found the expert advisers employed at the Department for Education’s Extended Ministerial Office were “really good strong people… They were respected by civil servants. They provided challenge to me as well as support.”

Further information

The Ministers Reflect archive first launched in December 2015. We intend for it to be a living resource; we will add new interviews with ministers, including some from the 2005-10 Labour administration, later this year.