What every cabinet minister needs to know

If they are to last longer in their job than a hamster

September 02, 2019
Boris Johnson and his cabinet © Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images
Boris Johnson and his cabinet © Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

Few British ministers survive as long as a hamster. The cute animals live for about four years—ministers are lucky if they stick around for two. The ministers swept into office on the coat-tails of the new prime minister Boris Johnson would do well to remember this important fact.

They’d do even better to read Peter Riddell’s new book. Largely based on interviews with former ministers by the Institute for Government—Riddell was the director until 2016—the book covers all the obstacles and heartaches faced by anyone heading a ministry. There’s the lack of training, the bungled reshuffles, plus the knowledge that if they do a “really bad Today programme... the grim reaper is at the door within hours.”

Then there’s the Whitehall machine. When it was explained to one opposition team that should they get into power the minister would have to clear everything with other departments, and any speech or press release would probably need to be signed off by No 10, there was “sheer, stunned horror on their faces,” writes Riddell. The degree of meddling can come as a nasty surprise. When Ken Clarke found No 10 apparatchiks operating in his Department of Justice, he “got them all thrown out.” If they wanted to come over, he would happily organise a meeting—and chair it himself.

Riddell’s book is well written, packed with examples and while it has little new, pulls together much of the evidence and argument. Where it is weaker is in its conclusions. It may be true that we have an unduly large number of ministers appointed purely “for reasons of patronage and bolstering a Commons majority and nothing to do with good government.” But suggesting tidy solutions—like putting stricter limits on numbers—would make it harder to develop fresh talent. Worse, it would ignore political imperatives. No minister or PM can afford to do that—certainly not if they hope to go the full hamster.

15 Minutes of Power: The Uncertain Life of British Ministers by Peter Riddell (Profile, £16.99)