Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The unbearable lightness of being a minister

Being a government minister is a strange job in lots of ways.

There is no formal interview process. You are simply appointed by the Prime Minister. You may have little or even no direct experience of the department you are being put in charge of and hence need to get up to speed very quickly in often very complex areas. You may never have run anything in your life before and suddenly find yourself (at least nominally) in charge of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, their jobs and livelihoods. You take decisions every day that can affect the entire country even though the only people who have actually put you in parliament are 1/650th of those people.

But one of the most curious aspects of the life of a minister is just how precarious the job is. That same Prime Minister who appointed you to the position can just as easily take it away from you. There is no notice period. If you're out, you're out. Clear your desk and go. Now. Oh and all your perks go instantly. You are suddenly just an ordinary person. There is no tribunal to appeal to. No due process. No unfair dismissal procedure. Just the door and your best attempt to avoid it hitting you on the arse on the way out. And once you are fired there is little chance of getting back into government again. A few do return but they are a statistical anomaly. The much greater likelihood is that you will never return.

The reason for your dismissal could be that a major scandal has broken about your department and perhaps you are not seen to be "gripping it". It probably wasn't your fault (directly) but that's immaterial. If the newspaper headlines are unforgiving for long enough you'll be toast anyway even if you've moved heaven and earth to try and sort things out. The explanation for your political demise may be even more prosaic though. Perhaps the PM just needs to maintain political balance and you're from the wrong wing of the party. Or maybe you're in coalition and there just aren't enough seats for everyone.

There are very few jobs nowadays that are given and taken away so lightly. Can you imagine a CEO of a large company being forced to resign because of something that happened in one of his offices or shops that he could not possibly have known about? Even if they did, you can be sure there will be a whole bunch of other directorships with other companies ready and waiting. It certainly wouldn't be the end of their career. But with ministers it is different. There is only one government and you're either in it or you're not.

I'm not trying to elicit sympathy for ministers here by the way. Politics is a brutal game. They knew what they were getting into and that is just the way it is. However I think it is important to recognise and acknowledge these facts because it can help us to understand why politicians who either are (or want to be) ministers behave in the way that they do.

Look at how Jeremy Hunt acted last year after the communications between his SpAD Adam Smith and News International. He allowed his underling to take the entire blame and then employed all his political skills to wriggle out of any responsibility for what happened. It was a most unedifying sight. But think about how high the stakes were for him. If he'd have resigned or "been resigned" as the fashion seems to be these days that would have been it. His political career would have been finished. All those years in student politics schelpping around different constituencies currying favour and trying to get elected followed by years as a backbencher and then shadow minister would in the end have come to nothing in a heartbeat. When you look at it through that end of the lens it is no wonder that ministers fight so hard to keep their jobs.

Part of the problem is that being a politician nowadays is very much seen as a career. It used to be seen as something that you did perhaps after 20 or more years spent in "the real world" building a career and that could be returned to if politics did not work out for you. But increasingly we have a professional class of politicians who have gone through the SpAd route and/or working in PR for a few years while trying to get a safe seat in parliament. It is not an adjunct to a career any more, it is the career.

I'm not sure there is an easy answer to this. I personally am very unhappy with the idea that MPs should have outside interests/careers while they are supposed to be serving their constituents and holding the government to account. That's more than a full time job as far as I am concerned.

So people like me who think that also need to accept that if you put politicians in the position where they have that much skin in the game, they are going to fight tooth and nail to keep their grip on the greasy pole. It's only natural and I think it's hypocritical for us as the electorate to think badly of them for doing it. We collectively force them to by stacking the chips in the way we do.

The MPs who avoid this precariousness are few and far between. Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Alastair Darling from the first cabinet of the Labour years were the only ones who were not at some point fired or had to resign. You can probably include Blair as well who (sort of) went at a time of his own choosing. In this government the only ones who are really secure are Cameron, Osborne and Clegg. All the others know that at any point they could be out.

That "unbearable lightness" is the prism through which they view the world. We would perhaps understand their actions better if we bore it in mind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem is that before they become mps they first come out of uni with some sort of political science degree they then go into the Westminster village as a research assistant or as a party flunky and then when they have proved that they can toe the party line they then get parachuted into a safe seat where they then represent people they never met and because most of them have never had a job in the real world like the rest of us you haven't a hope in hell of understanding us