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15 Minutes of Power by Peter Riddell, review: when government ministers become ‘entirely pointless’

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Here today, gone tomorrow?: Boris Johnson with his new Cabinet
Here today, gone tomorrow?: Boris Johnson with his new Cabinet Credit: Aaron Chown/Getty Images Europe

Mark Carlisle knew his ministerial career was over because of the prunes. As Margaret Thatcher’s first education secretary, he wielded power over millions of children’s schooling. That power could vanish in a moment. Arriving for a Downing Street breakfast with Thatcher, he was told they would be joined by Keith Joseph: disaster, as Thatcher wanted Joseph to have Carlisle’s job. As Carlisle recalled: “I sat at the table where there was a nice bowl of strawberries and was about to tuck in when the PM shouted: ‘No, Mark! Those are for Keith. There are prunes for you on the sideboard.’”

The fragility of power – how ministers can wield so much of it, yet so easily lose their crowns – sits at the heart of Peter Riddell’s new book. While director of the Institute for Government, Riddell began a series of interviews, Ministers Reflect, which has become a priceless online archive of gubernatorial wisdom from recently dethroned ministers. 15 Minutes of Power is the first stab at synthesising this resource, and Riddell has done a good job of bringing together some of its more unedifying conclusions.

He makes a strong case that ministers’ failings have systemic causes. To start with, there are too many of them. Parliament has capped paid numbers at 109, but this is still huge by international standards, reflecting England’s ultra-centralised government, and the cunning efforts of successive party leaders to swell their opportunities for patronage. There are so many ministers that even prime ministers can lose track. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, recalls the appointment process as “a mass production exercise”, with ministers lined up five or six at a time on the phone and “frequent shouts from [Blair’s office] asking what on earth the job was that the next caller was supposed to be doing”.

Ministers are typically appointed with little regard for their skills. Labour’s John Reid remembers how he spent seven years building his understanding of the military, only to be shifted to transport after just a year as armed forces minister. For his colleague, Alan West, entering government meant a crash-course in policy: “It was like doing an A-level a night on some of these things.” Ministers regularly arrive with almost no experience of working in a big organisation, let alone running one.

Cynics might claim that this is all inevitable, but Riddell disagrees. Why not take a few weeks to appoint ministers, actually ask them what they want to do, then train and monitor them? It is a shame he does not go further and question, say, why ministers must be appointed at all, rather than elected by government MPs, or how national executive appointments compare with those for devolved governments and local councils.

On the other hand, he rightly devotes much space to attacking the most bizarre aspect of the British system: continuous reshuffles. The average CEO of one of Britain’s 300 biggest companies is in post for about five years. Under Blair and Brown, the average junior minister held office for just 1.7 years. Riddell brilliantly draws the connection to bad policymaking, as avaricious politicians are driven to short-termism and fervent self-promotion as they manoeuvre for their next job. Virtually no other country plays musical chairs in this way. When Riddell tried to compare notes on reshuffles with German political scientists, it was hard for him to explain what he was talking about: barring one-off resignations, German ministers tend to last the four-year course.

Downing Street, not to mention the ever-present Treasury, sticks its nose into ministers’ business, yet the picture from Riddell’s interviewees is one of confusion. When Tory minister Hugo Swire checked with No 10 about the latest diktat, “invariably it was some teenage scribbler giving themselves huge power”. All ministers must perform regular jousts with Parliament, trying, as Harriet Harman put it, to “thwack down the backbenchers that are asking you questions”.

In the midst of this noise, can ministers achieve anything? According to Thomas Babington Macaulay, junior ministerial life was that of “a mere slave”. Chris Mullin, the Labour junior minister, wrote: “My existence is now (after four months in post) almost entirely pointless.” Digby Jones, his colleague, went further, calling it “one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have.”

Riddell is more positive. He concludes that by finding one or two useful things, and prioritising them ruthlessly, ministers can get meaningful stuff done. His book emerges as touchingly idealist in its tightly argued case for politicians’ ability to bring about real change in their 15 minutes of power.

15 Minutes of Power is published by Profile at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop