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Interviews with Truss and Johnson ministers prove time in government shouldn’t be wasted

Being a minister in a government with a majority is a rare opportunity.

Chloe Smith
Chloe Smith covered the role of secretary of state for science, innovation and technology while Michelle Donelan was on maternity leave.

The testimonies of former ministers should be a reminder to the current government that ministers can do a lot in a short space of time – and a warning that it is all too easy to waste that opportunity, writes Grant Dalton

The last few years have been an unusually hectic time to be in government – especially for ministers. To mark a year since Boris Johnson stepped down as prime minister, we interviewed five of his former ministers, who saw his management style and the impact of Covid first-hand.  

Covid and ministerial turnover have made governing more difficult over the past few years 

Tackling the Covid pandemic and the resignations of two prime ministers in 2022 meant the focus of government has often been on short-term firefighting rather than long-term efficiency. The impact of the pandemic was particularly stark, with Sir Robert Buckland, justice secretary from 2020 to 2022, telling us: “Everything became operational. The old idea that the minister looks after the strategy – forget that… The weekdays melted into weekends.”  

The instability also saw high turnover – of ministers and special advisers, but also of policies. Lord Bethell, a health minister during Covid, criticised No.10 during the period for its overly reactive approach: “[They] would grab things and then give them away. That was… not [a] very good way of running things”. 

Last year was the first year since 1868 to see three different prime ministers take office. Brandon Lewis, former justice and Northern Ireland secretary, was “in the room, effectively, for the last 24 hours of the last three PMs.” He gives a sense of just how dramatic Johnson’s July 2022 resignation was: 

“I have never been through anything quite as surreal as the night before Boris resigned. That was the most bizarre. If I wrote down, word for word, the script of that night, the producer of The Thick of It would tell me it was far-fetched.” 

That summer’s extended Conservative leadership campaign effectively meant a caretaker government was in charge for two months, until the appointment of Liz Truss on 6 September –though this was followed swiftly by her resignation on 25 October. Sir Robert Buckland, who served in her cabinet too, said inexperience and high turnover of advisers was partly to blame: 

“[Liz Truss] had great ambition and I don’t think anybody should criticise that… but ultimately the execution was not right, and No.10 had been cleared out of virtually everybody, in fact everybody I think, apart from the permanent staff. There was therefore a complete lack of any institutional memory whatsoever.” 

But ministers felt they achieved important reforms, despite the difficult circumstances 

Crises, high turnover and changes in leadership have made the last few years a difficult time to be a minister, but those we spoke to emphasised their ability to change things – even with limited time in post.  

Sir Brandon Lewis, for instance, served as justice secretary under Liz Truss for just 40 days. Despite this he told us “I’m actually really proud of the time we had at MoJ because we ended the bar strike, we expanded tagging… we got a lot done in a short period of time.” Reaching a resolution on the criminal barrister strike, in particular, was impressive considering it had been running for months.  

Sir Robert Buckland, who served as Wales secretary in Johnson’s caretaker government, also told us he felt he “got a lot done” in his three months in the job – even as the identity of his cabinet colleagues changed repeatedly. 

Not all ministerial turnover was enforced  

Another way ministers may find themselves filling a post for a short time is through ministerial maternity cover – a recent innovation which means ministers on parental leave can be temporarily replaced. Chloe Smith, who covered for Michelle Donelan as science and technology secretary, was the first person to cover – for two months – a secretary of state role.. She told us she felt she achieved a lot – and even suggested that it helped to have an end date so she could be concrete and realistic in what her aims:  

“At the outset I wrote a note to the prime minister saying: “Here’s how I intend to approach this job. Here are the things you should expect me to be able to deliver.” And then I married that up with a note at the end saying: “Here’s what we achieved.””  

This approach, setting clear goals, with realistic timeframes to push through change, is one other ministers could make more use of – though naturally most ministers wouldn’t want to put an end date on their own tenure. 

Sunak’s ministers must not waste the next 18 months 

In a speech soon after Rishi Sunak became prime minister, levelling up secretary Michael Gove declared that “boring is back”  4   – meaning, for ministers, longer in the job, more time to get to grips with the policy issues and, hopefully, fewer crises. 

But while Sunak has restored some stability, his government is in danger of drifting. Number 10 appears to be more focused on campaigning and election planning than the everyday business of government – as the recent slew of themed weeks, from small boats to health, demonstrate. 

The next general election could be as late as January 2025, and most ministers have had nearly a year to get their feet under the table. This is ample time to develop – and attempt to deliver – a strong programme for government which goes beyond slogans and campaigning. 

The testimonies of Johnson’s ministers – and even those who served during Truss’s government – show that a minister can make progress – and feel a sense of achievement – during a short time in office. The prime minister's attention may be turning towards the general election, but Sunak's ministers could yet be in government, with a Commons majority, for another 18 months. That is a rare and precious thing in politics, and they should make use of this opportunity. 

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Rishi Sunak
Institute for Government

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