So you’re a junior minister now?
We all know being a new Secretary of State is hard. Heavy red boxes, trying to stay awake through Cabinet meetings, and getting blamed when your department gets it all wrong.
But please also spare a thought for those junior ministers in the latest reshuffle who are in government for the first time. They have gone from a parliamentary world they know and understand, to being immersed in the bizarre jungle that is a Whitehall department.
If this applies to you, fear not! We’re here to help you on your way, with some key tips on how to work with your new departments, and how to avoid the infamous tricks of Sir Humphrey.
Thing one, make friends with your private office, quickly.
These hardy souls are your link to the department and wider government, and they have your interests at heart. They will make sure submissions and briefings from the department are in a decent state before they reach you, and they will also tell civil servants what to do on your behalf.
They might even try and actively manage your mood – spreading out desperately bad news over a few days so you don’t fly into an apoplectic rage and derail your career before it’s even got off the ground (because you will feel like doing this at some stage).
But they are often also young and relatively inexperienced, so resist the temptation to be too hard on them when things go wrong (and be extra nice to them when things go right).
Through your private office, you will need to communicate clearly and early on what you want from the department. Nothing is too obvious. This should range from your key policy priorities down to how you like your letters drafted and what briefing format you find easiest to use (no Times New Roman, please). Civil servants respond to clarity of direction and you will save yourself hours of time later on if you’re honest at the start.
So if you’ve followed these steps correctly, you’ve now got a box full of well-written, nicely formatted, briefings and submissions. Good. But you now need to ignore them and seek out the experts directly. The civil service will naturally inundate you with written briefings and fill your meeting room with hundreds of directors and director generals. But what you really want is to talk to junior staff who actually know the detail of the policy and can bring it to life for you. And you need to make sure you get out and about – meeting staff in public services and the general public they are there to serve.
From these visits, you’ll probably see or be told about some policy problems and think “wow, why aren’t we doing more about this.” That’s fine, but pick your priority areas wisely. You’ll want to find the sweet spot in between things which your Secretary of State will automatically snaffle up if anything good comes of it, at one end, and things which are too boring and won’t ever get any coverage at the other.
And bear in mind the civil service won’t think this way naturally – their allegiance is to the department, and to its Secretary of State, not to you. So if you want to hold on to a juicy announcement for yourself, play it a bit 007 style and keep it under wraps for as long as you can.
Unfortunately, once you’ve mastered all the above your time may very well be up as a junior minister, because such tenures are notoriously short.
But if you’re very, very lucky – and you’re in the right place at the right time – you may even secure a promotion to Secretary of State! At which point, you have a new worry list, including how to stay awake in Cabinet meetings…