20 July 2016

We’ve interviewed nearly 40 former ministers about how to do the job well for our Ministers Reflect archive. Nicola Hughes looks at their advice for new ministers.

Theresa May’s first reshuffle is now complete and, as we’ve been charting over on the live-blog, there are plenty of new faces joining the Government benches, as well as ministers who have been promoted or moved sideways into new departments. For some it will have been a shock: “I think I burst into tears, quite frankly, it was such a surprise”, said Baroness Kramer of her appointment in the 2013 reshuffle. It can also be “very daunting” (Tim Loughton) and there is little time to ease into the job, as Jo Swinson outlined: “It was a very short time period before doing oral questions... you’re thrown in at the deep end and you just have to get on with it.” There’s a huge amount to take in, but the top ten pieces of advice we heard from ministers were:

  1. Prioritise. By far the most commonly mentioned advice in our interviews was to “have a small number of clear objectives and pursue them” (Andrew Mitchell), and to “be absolutely clear about what you’re trying to achieve” (Hugh Robertson). As recent events have shown, you don’t know how long you’ll be a minister for, so don’t spend it reacting to everything thrown your way – focus.
  1. Get the diary under control. The hours are long and exhausting, “back-to-back submissions and meetings”, said Lynne Featherstone. Get a good private office and be clear about how you want to spend your time. As Damian Green (now promoted to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) advises: “don’t let officials tell you, ‘Oh you have to do this, Minister’. No you don’t! You’re the minister”.
  1. Talk to your predecessors. Most ministers have only limited preparation for their role, even if they have interacted with the department before or had experience as a Whip or as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. So, put personal and political differences aside and “talk to your predecessor”, as Lord Young suggests, “to find out where the bodies are buried.” How much they wish to continue with their predecessor’s policies is a thorny issue.
  1. Know your brief. “Once you get over the initial shock,” suggests Ken Clarke, "take your time “reading into it, getting into it, meeting a few people who are interesting”. Bluffing won’t work in the department or in the House.
  1. Don’t forget Parliament… Ministers get quickly absorbed by departmental life but those who neglect to spend time working the tea-rooms in the House can regret it. “You have got to be working with people in Parliament”, advises Lord Howell, “and you’ve got to have them on your side”.
  1. …or the media. Even if you aren’t a natural media performer, public image matters “whether we like it or not”, according to Mark Prisk. “…if people don’t see you then they don’t know what you’re doing.”
  1. Take leadership seriously. You won’t get far without your civil servants behind you. For Caroline Spelman, ministers must be “good at generating a good culture within the department in which the people who work in the department feel proud… and feel appreciated for what they do.”
  1. Engage No10. The centre of government can help or hinder. If like Greg Barker you’re “very fortunate” in having a close political and personal relationship with the Prime Minister, you can “cash in some of that political capital with a direct appeal” if needed. At any rate, try to engage them early in your policy agenda – “they don’t like being caught on the hop” (Lord Young).
  1. Encourage challenge. To develop robust policy and implement it well, you’ll need constructive challenge both from within the department (“I ran it as a kind of debating society… that clarifies one’s own mind.” – Ken Clarke) and from outside, through special advisers or external policy experts (“I would actively seek out contrary views” – Steve Webb).
  1. Enjoy it. “At the start it is overwhelming and that’s totally natural”, said Jo Swinson, but over time most ministers learn, adapt, relax and ultimately enjoy the job – prompting our final tip from Michael Moore: “you have got to enjoy yourself, otherwise it would be a pretty miserable way of passing the time”.

The new recruits will now have a little pause over the summer recess, however, and can use the time to think about exactly what they want to achieve in office – and how to do it.

Further information

A version of this article originally appeared in The Times Red Box newsletter.

Comments

Good friendly advice. I would like to add -
Don’t make promises you will later regret
Don’t raise expectations you can’t fulfil
Treat everyone with respect and listen to what they say, even if you don’t agree
Respect evidence and expertise
Make sure policies and legislation are properly thought through and thoroughly debated
Don’t pretend that government always has a solution, or intervene unnecessarily
Remember that relationships and trust matter more than structures and processes
And that simplistic error drives out complex truth.