Minister

David Jones

"As a Wales Office minister, you’re essentially involved in a constitutional exercise and a PR exercise"

Nicola Hughes (NH): Thinking back to when you first started as Minister in 2010, what was your experience of coming into government like?

David Jones (DJ): It was very much what I expected. Clearly, as a shadow minister you have contact with government departments so, to a large extent, you do get a good picture of what is involved. I’d actually visited the Wales Office before I was appointed. I’d met the senior members of staff there, which is very useful. So it wasn’t too much of a culture shock.

NH: And was there anything that was particularly surprising or that you weren’t expecting?

DJ: I think that the officials were a lot more official than I expected. I had expected, to a certain extent, that there might be a relaxation of the impression that they gave but, no, the officials remained very official. So to that extent I was quite surprised.

I was very impressed very early with the quality of the documentation, which was extremely good. I have a background in law where good documentation is essential and I found that it was of an extremely high quality in the office.

I have a background in law where good documentation is essential and I found that it was of an extremely high quality in the office

NH: You’d done a few previous roles – shadowing the job and you were in the Welsh Select Committee as well.

DJ: I was in the Welsh Select Committee. I was also the shadow junior minister so I stepped straight into the role I’d been shadowing when I was appointed.

NH: And did that previous experience help you?

DJ: Yes it did because I was obviously aware of what the current issues were and that made life a lot easier. I didn’t have to go through too much of a learning curve. It must be very different if you’ve been shadowing in another department and then you are actually placed into a completely different department, but I was fortunate.

NH: And did you have any support in the first few weeks and months?

DJ: Support from whom?

NH: Private office, outsiders…

DJ: Private office was great. I think that the British Civil Service is a huge national asset and I was very impressed by the quality of the private office who were extremely helpful. But apart from that, no. I obviously knew what the role was and I stepped straight into it.

NH: You went from being a junior minister in the department to being Secretary of State…

DJ: In the same department.

NH: Yeah, which was quite rare, I think.

DJ: Yes.

NH: What was that transition like? Was there a big difference between the two roles?

DJ: That was even easier, actually. Of course, I’d been working in the Wales Office for over two years so when I did become Secretary of State it was pretty seamless. I had the same staff. I was dealing with precisely the same issues. My diary was virtually unchanged so it was extremely easy.

I’d been working in the Wales Office for over two years so when I did become Secretary of State it was pretty seamless

NH: And what were your big priorities when you went into office? What were the main things that you wanted to achieve?

DJ: That’s driven, to a certain extent, by the agenda of the Government. And, in terms of Wales, there were a number of constitutional issues that were on the go at the time. There was a referendum that had taken place in 2011. We had also launched the Silk Commission on powers for the Welsh Assembly and that was a continuing exercise. And, in fact, Silk dominated my life in the Wales Office from the moment I was appointed until the moment I left. It was the biggest issue of all.

As a Wales Office minister, you’re essentially involved in a constitutional exercise and a public relations exercise. Obviously, there are very few administrative powers in the Wales Office but there is a lot of constitutional stuff. And, interestingly also, you have to be across the work of other departments too because other Whitehall departments obviously impinge upon Wales so you frequently found yourself acting as a buffer in both directions between other government departments and – I hate using the word but I will – ‘stakeholders’ in Wales.

As a Wales Office minister, you’re essentially involved in a constitutional exercise and a public relations exercise.

Jen Gold (JG): Were there any departments in particular that you were working heavily with?

DJ: Yeah, Transport is a very big one because, apart from roads, transport isn’t really devolved in Wales so that was a big issue. DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] was a massive one because, of course, that’s not devolved at all. I had dealings with the police but certainly DWP and Transport were the main ones.

NH: You touched on some of the specific roles of the Welsh Secretary there. How would you describe more generally the roles and duties of a minister?

DJ: Of a junior minister or secretary of state?

NH: Maybe both and what the big differences were that you saw between them.

DJ: There isn’t really a huge amount of difference because, as I said, I stepped fairly seamlessly from one role into the other. As a junior minister you’re assisting the Secretary of State. My predecessor was very good so we worked extremely well as a team and when I took over it was straightforward.

The work of a Secretary of State, quite apart from the constitutional aspect of the work, there is a great deal of PR. You’re dealing with civil society in Wales. There is still huge confusion in Wales as to who does what, notwithstanding devolution having been in place since 1999. A lot of people don’t understand who does what.

The other interesting aspect, of course, was that we were a coalition administration whereas, of course, we had a Labour administration in Cardiff that had been there, effectively, since the inception of the Welsh Assembly. They had actually never known a Westminster administration other than a Labour one so there were inevitable tensions that cropped up and trying to forge personal relationships is extremely important to try and overcome the natural political differences that you have.

There is still huge confusion in Wales as to who does what, notwithstanding devolution having been in place since 1999

NH: Just on the PR point, was that mostly in the Welsh media?

DJ: Yes, in the Welsh media. And you do an awful lot of travel in Wales, primarily because it’s so hard to get round. The transport networks in Wales are very difficult. I’m a North Walian. I’ve lived in North Wales all my life and I found myself going more and more frequently to South Wales, which was frankly an area I knew less well than London – considerably less well. So you do a lot of travel.

It’s quite helpful to be able to speak Welsh, for example; that’s quite important. That’s another element of the Wales Office that’s different; you’re dealing with an area of Britain that has got a very different culture from the metropolitan culture that a lot of ministers are more familiar with.

…you’re dealing with an area of Britain that has got a very different culture from the metropolitan culture that a lot of ministers are more familiar with

JG: And in terms of speaking Welsh, was it needed in terms of your working relationships with the Welsh administration or even in the Wales Office, or was that more important on the public and the PR side?

DJ: The lingua franca is English but certainly when you’re dealing with Welsh communities it’s useful to be able to speak Welsh.

NH: Just as an aside, I suppose the other ministerial roles that are most analogous to that of the Wales Minister are the Northern Ireland Secretary and the Scottish Secretary. Did you do much by way of comparing notes with them?

DJ: Yes, to a certain extent, although this was always the problem because people were constantly conflating the situation in Scotland with the situation in Wales. And Wales and Scotland, as I kept on reminding people, are very, very different places and, frankly, the Welsh get really quite offended when people lump them into the same bundle as Scotland and Northern Ireland because we’re not. But, yes, we did, because obviously there’s the devolution aspect which, although not identical, is similar. And we were very close to the Scotland Office which is just across Whitehall – I mean literally you walk straight across and they walk across to us.

JG: In terms of the day-to-day reality of being a minister, can you give us a sense of how most of your time was actually spent?

DJ: You start very early and you finish very late, basically. I would usually be in the office before eight o’clock. Much to my annoyance, they used to send a car to pick me up which was really not picking me up; it was picking the red box up which obviously I had got at home with me.

You start very early. I found that actually quite annoyed the officials because they didn’t like me getting in at eight o’clock. They had this thing that there had always to be an official present when I turned up and I told them that the world wouldn’t come to an end if they weren’t. We used to have ‘prayers’ [team meetings] every Wednesday, which usually lasted about an hour and a half so that was an immutable part of the weekly diary.

I would usually start the day with my Private Secretary going through the day’s agenda. And then really they don’t follow a pattern. You may well find that you have a week where there’s a lot of parliamentary stuff going on. Other weeks you’re doing a great deal of travelling.

The other thing that the Wales Office does, by the way, is act as a kind of embassy for Wales in London. There are always events going on in London. For example, next week there is a big defence exhibition going on in the ExCel Centre. Two years ago I went to that because there were a number of Welsh defence companies that were exhibiting there.

So it’s very hard to say it follows a pattern. Then, of course, it continues in the evening. There are, frequently, receptions in the evening; sometimes in Gwydyr House, which we used to use quite a lot as a shop window for Wales. But also out of the office and around London. It was quite varied but Wednesday, I think, was the day that followed the most set pattern with ‘prayers’ and then obviously PMQs. I’d usually be London-based every Wednesday.

The other thing that the Wales Office does, by the way, is act as a kind of embassy for Wales in London

JG: Obviously there were a number of competing demands on your time: parliamentary business, departmental business, the media, your constituency; how did you cope with those competing demands?

DJ: You work seven days a week, basically.

JG: And were there any areas where it was particularly challenging?

DJ: It’s extremely difficult to keep on top of your constituency work because the department, reasonably I think, expects that that work takes priority so you need to have a very good staff in the House [of Commons] and also in the constituency. And you need to be prepared to work all day Saturday and most of Sunday too.

JG: Are there any strategies or tips you can share, because obviously your constituency is quite a distance from London?

DJ: Get good staff.

JG: Right.

DJ: You really do need extremely good, high quality constituency and Westminster staff.

JG: And did they operate fairly separately or did you…?

DJ: No, they worked very much as a team and I would make a phone call to the constituency office every morning, fairly early, to check in and see what was going on. My PA there knew that if there was a problem there would be no difficulty in telephoning me during the day, and if I was busy I’d call back. I used to see my Westminster staff personally every day. They would usually come up to the office and they would go through correspondence and we’d talk about stuff that needed to be talked about. But that is the most difficult aspect; it’s making sure that you are continuing to give a service to your constituents as well as to the [Wales] Office.

JG: Obviously, some MPs try and reserve Friday for being in the constituency. I don’t know if that was possible in your situation.

DJ: Yeah, I used to travel back to North Wales on a Thursday evening and then I’d come back to London on a Sunday afternoon. Friday, I would try to see constituents and do constituency work but sometimes it wasn’t possible and I’d be doing stuff for the [Wales] Office. Saturdays, I would usually hold surgeries – in fact, every Saturday I held a surgery. So really it’s a seven-day-a-week job. And I think it’s a bit more difficult when you’re not actually living in London, when you have a constituency that’s some distance away.

it’s a seven-day-a-week job. And I think it’s a bit more difficult when you’re not actually living in London, when you have a constituency that’s some distance away

JG: I wonder whether you could talk us through an occasion where an unexpected event, or even a crisis, hit the department and how you went about dealing with that.

DJ: There were very few crises. Very few. There was one very early in my career in the Wales Office, just after I’d been appointed – it must have been within a month or two – which frankly was like a script from The Thick of It. I can’t remember precisely what had gone wrong but I know there were a lot of people running around and trying to talk across one another and I actually said, ‘This is like The Thick of It’. But, no, there weren’t many crises. The Office was very well organised.

JG: Were there any unexpected events in Wales that you suddenly had to respond to?

DJ: The big one, I suppose, was the Gleision mine disaster. I don’t know whether you remember that but there was a drift mine in South Wales that was being operated by a small company and a number of miners were killed. That was very heavy and it happened literally the day before I was due to fly out to America on holiday. Essentially, Cheryl Gillan was the Secretary of State then and we spent all day on the telephone. We kept in close touch with the police and the Welsh Assembly Government. Ultimately, she actually went to South Wales. She also had an incident where there was an explosion in the oil refinery in Milford Haven and, again, she went down there. I subsequently went as Minister to the memorial service. But there weren’t that many unexpected events and certainly when I was Secretary of State, we didn’t have any.

NH: What do you feel was your greatest achievement in office or, alternatively, the thing that you’re most proud of during your time?

DJ: I suppose taking the Wales Bill through the Commons. I think that’s probably the most important thing that I did. It was the culmination of a lot of work. We’d been working on the Silk Commission stuff, and this was the end of Part 1 of Silk, and it was delivering on our commitment there. We took that through the Commons very successfully with no amendments.

NH: What do you think contributed to that success?

DJ: I think because probably it would be very difficult for any of the opposition parties to seek to amend a bill that was giving more power to Wales when they were all committed to more devolution. So I think that that was probably the most helpful bit. But it was very well prepared, had an extremely good, high-quality bill team in the Wales Office – a really good bill team – and we got it through all the various stages successfully.

NH: Any other reflections on the policy-making process overall in government?

DJ: Well, bearing in mind we were working in a coalition and there were disputes within the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition as to precisely what should be in the Wales Bill. Ultimately, I think we actually got most of what we wanted, but that was the difference and I think that coalition government is obviously very different from overall majority government.

NH: And how did that negotiation happen? Was that through the Cabinet Office and Number 10?

DJ: The Cabinet Office was heavily involved. We liaised with the Cabinet Office in the first place. I was then in negotiations with senior Lib Dems, which was a bit difficult but we got it through. But I think that the most important thing was… I think each individual side has to get its own ducks in a row before going into negotiations and that’s what we did. But Cabinet Office was very heavily involved, obviously as well because there were constitutional issues that we were talking about so they would be.

JG: I’m interested in the role of special advisers. In terms of the Wales Office, did they play much of a part in assisting you?

DJ: Very important, yes.

JG: In any particular area?

DJ: General politics and the stuff that spads are good at, and looking out for elephant traps. We were only allowed one special adviser but during my time there we had two. Cheryl had one and then I got a new one when I was appointed. There was some talk later on of a Lib Dem spad coming in but that never happened.

But very important, yes. I think special advisers are particularly important in the Wales Office because of the element of dealing with a politically hostile Welsh Assembly Government. So the politics are extremely important and I found mine extremely helpful.

…special advisers are particularly important in the Wales Office because of the element of dealing with a politically hostile Welsh Assembly Government

NH: What about your relationships with the other ministers in your department?

DJ: I had an extremely good relationship with Cheryl Gillan and she remains one of my closest friends in Parliament. In fact, I was just with her; we’re both on the Public Administration Committee and we just left there. When she left, Stephen Crabb, who is the present Secretary of State, was appointed. I didn’t see so much of him because he was double-jobbing; he was also a whip. At that point, I think there had been a change. You see when I started, there were two Conservative ministers. I think the Lib Dems suddenly woke up to the fact that it was an entirely Tory department in Whitehall so they decided that they wanted to put a peer in as a junior minister and so Jenny Randerson came in. So we didn’t have another salary so Stephen Crabb had to double-job and he was effectively a whip but he was looking in. I got on very well with both of them. I’ve known both of them for many years. I didn’t see so much of Stephen Crabb because he was spending a lot of time here [in the House of Commons]. Jenny Randerson used to look in every day and we carved out the various areas of work that the two of them would do but, of course, I was basically overseeing the whole thing.

NH: So you would keep watch over the whole brief and then delegate?

DJ: Yes, although we actually had carved out the areas of responsibility beforehand, but I was obviously interested in everything that was going on. You’ve got to be careful not to micro-manage and I think that’s true with officials, as well.

NH: You talked about private office but can you talk a little more about the working relationship with your Permanent Secretary and your department?

DJ: You were talking about tips; I think a very important tip for any minister is to understand that they have a great resource in extremely high-quality people working for them. They are all highly intelligent and to seek to micro-manage their work is a really bad idea. You should certainly get to know your officials but once you get to know them you will soon get to know their strengths and weaknesses and then you can just more or less say, ‘Well, please do that’. And to attempt to micro-manage all their work I think is a really bad idea. I know that Peter Riddell agrees with that. One of the first things he said when we went to one of our induction courses was, ‘For God’s sake, don’t try and do everything yourself’. And he actually mentioned a past Secretary of State for Wales as being an example of a really bad manager because he had to do everything personally.

NH: Is that one of the inductions by the Institute?

DJ: Yes.

NH: Final few questions now, what did you find most frustrating about being a minister?

DJ: Risk-averse officials, I think. Probably meaning extremely well but I think a point comes when ministers have to decide what risks they’re going to take and then you get the Yes Minister line: ‘That’s very courageous of you, Minister’. It still actually happens.

…ministers have to decide what risks they’re going to take and then you get the Yes Minister line: ‘That’s very courageous of you, Minister’

NH: They may be too confidential, I don’t know, but are there any examples you can give?

DJ: They are too confidential but there are certainly incidents where I’ve felt that they were erring too much on the side of caution. I think that’s a bit of a problem with the Civil Service generally, actually. You have to be prudent but, at the same time, the business of state is a business and doing business sometimes involves taking risks.

JG: And you mentioned your work with some of the other departments; what about in terms of the Centre – No 10, Treasury – was there much interaction?

DJ: A lot. I mentioned the constitutional stuff. Bear in mind that this was all happening at a very important constitutional time because we were leading up to the Scottish referendum. And frankly, Wales was a bit of a sideshow to Scotland. Scotland dominated the last Parliament, really. So whatever we did in Wales echoed in Scotland. So we were dealing a lot with the Cabinet Office and with No 10. It was a very, very close relationship.

JG: From your observations, are any ways that government could be made more effective? Was there anything that particularly struck you?

DJ: I suppose if I were to sit down, I could come up with dozens of examples. I think that the structure of the Civil Service is something that’s clearly built up over the generations and there are very good reasons for it. Francis Maude [then Minister for the Cabinet Office] was trying to streamline things while we were there; I’m not sure he entirely succeeded. But one of the things that he came up with was having an enhanced private office and you could have more political appointments and so on. That never actually happened. I actually think that more political appointments are probably quite a good thing because although it’s entirely right that the Civil Service should be apolitical, its direction is political and therefore you need, I think, frequently more political input than you’ve got. I think maybe with bigger departments with more spads it may be easier. When you’re working with one spad in a small department it’s a bit different. But I really wanted more political input than I was getting.

I actually think that more political appointments are probably quite a good thing

NH: How did you stay in touch with backbenchers and the party, as a whole, in the more political side of stuff? Was that all through your spad?

DJ: No. I mean we’re obviously here [Parliament] every day, so to that extent, we know what’s going on. The trouble is, of course, politically the party tends to banish ministers to the outer reaches so you can’t turn up to ’22 committee meetings, and so on. So, to a certain extent, you are on the periphery but you’ve friends in the party and friends in Parliament and you speak to them every day. So you are tapped in. And the spads are always networking – drinking! [laughter] That goes on a lot.

JG: And based on your experiences, how would you define an effective minister?

DJ: Got to be hard-working and be prepared to do a lot of hard work. Got to have a thick skin because you get criticised right, left and centre – I was being constantly criticised in the Welsh press. And you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. You have to focus on what you’re doing and carry it through unremittingly. So I think it’s a question of being thick-skinned and obsessive, really [laughter].

NH: Are there any other final pieces of advice that you’d give to people doing the role for the first time?

DJ: Yes, I think take time to learn your trade; I think that that’s quite important. It’s great to have the red box and think that you’re going to rule the world immediately but it takes a while to get into the rhythm of being a minister. As I said, I was lucky to the extent that I’d been shadowing the position beforehand but even then there were things that I was not used to. And get to know your senior officials; I think that that is extremely important. They will be extremely loyal to you and they want to do everything they can to help you. Do regard them as the most important resource that you’ve got. As I said, I think we have a great national resource in the Civil Service in this country. Good officials are absolutely invaluable.

…get to know your senior officials; I think that that is extremely important. They will be extremely loyal to you and they want to do everything they can to help you

JG: And just to pick up on your advice to new ministers, you mentioned that you did the Institute for Government induction. Is there any outside support that you think they should seek out or is it mainly briefing internally within the department?

DJ: I can’t think of any outside support I took, apart from the IfG. I did do, now who was it? Someone came and did what they call a 360-degree assessment of me, which was quite useful. I think that that was from the Cabinet Office. That was quite good because what they actually do is talk to you and then they go and talk to your officials, as you probably know, and then your officials will give an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. That’s really quite useful.

JG: And that’s not something that most ministers participate in but you think that’s valuable?

DJ: I found it really good.

NH: Did you change much about your behaviour or what you were doing as a result of it?

DJ: No, because I had an extremely good assessment [laughter]. But I could imagine myself changing things. I think that if somebody said, ‘Well, you know, this chap’s a bit cantankerous’, or whatever, you might possibly change the way you react. And, as I said, the officials are extremely loyal but you have to obviously treat them with all the respect they deserve because they’re highly qualified people and probably far brighter than you as a minister.

JG: In hindsight, would you have approached the role differently in any way?

DJ: Probably but, if you’re going to ask me for examples, I couldn’t think of any. I think, yes, to the extent that you learn the trade as you progress. So, obviously, after four years there you’re a lot better than you were on day one and it’s like anything else, things become easier. You’re not killing yourself so much doing the same work. So, yes, but if you were to ask me for specific examples I couldn’t give them to you. But certainly, I would have done things differently if I’d known on day one what I knew towards the end of my ministerial career.

NH: Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

DJ: No, except that it’s a wonderful opportunity, I think, for anybody. I think that the insight that you get into national life is wonderful. You are doing interesting things and you’re meeting interesting people. You may be getting exhausted but it doesn’t last that long, anyway, especially with this Prime Minister – most people get shuffled out after a relatively short time. So just enjoy it, work as hard as you can and you have an experience that will be unmatched. Very few people get to sit at the Cabinet table so it’s a privilege.