Being good ministers is not enough

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve heard several Liberal Democrat ministers talk to groups of party members about how they are finding it in government. Although the personalities and the departmental challenges vary in many ways, several common themes have come out.

One is a credit to the team behind Yes Minister; it is still the default frame of reference for talking about how the British civil service behaves and everyone says they can recognise parts of the behaviour the TV series satirised several decades ago in the current behaviour of civil servants. Not too much, but still some.

Another theme is the number of decisions which ministers – even those with Conservative Cabinet members more senior to them – are able to take. It’s reassuring to hear at first hand that Liberal Democrat ministers outside of Cabinet are managing to plough a Liberal Democrat furrow in their own areas rather than simply being junior implementers of a Conservative Cabinet member’s policy.

Reassuringly too for those of us who have seen local councillors disappear into the bureaucracy and do a hard-working diligent job but forget what it is that makes them Liberal Democrat rather than just an apolitical competent administrator, there looks to be some consistent liberal themes across the decisions being made. In particular, issues about empowering individuals and decentralising power come up time and again.

The trickier question, however, is whether a collection of liberal victories scattered through government will add up to a convincing overall picture for the public of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government. The danger is that, rather like a good speech writer, the party may end up making many significant changes to government, improving what is being done, but whose good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

The challenge for the party – at all levels – is to be seen as more than that. That both requires, as people get to grips with their jobs in government, a stronger flow of information from the parts of the party in government and also the usual hard work at publicising the party’s work by local parties, helpers and supporters.

I’ve been struck by an odd contradiction when it comes to information about what the party is up to in government. On the one hand, people have been very willing to respond to emails and phone calls, answering questions. But on the other hand, when the questions are not asked there has – so far – been relatively little information flowing out, such as the details of why cutting the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was justified. In fact, the case is an extremely strong one: the firm wanted money and had two choices – issue shares or get a loan from the government. When the former was an option, why should the government step in instead to make a loan? Issuing shares to raise money for a firm is a normal part of business life all around the country and it’s a rather odd comment on New Labour’s love of business for it to have preferred to offer up public money in order to protect the firm’s owners from diluting their own shareholdings by issuing new shares.

Of course, the easy way to reconcile those two hands is that people are new in post and busy getting to grips with government. So the contrast is understandable and even expected, for the time being. It needs though not to become a habit.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • ” the details of why cutting the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was justified”

    To be fair, this has been asked and answered MANY times over in the House of Commons & Nick Clegg wrote an article for his local paper explaining this too. Doesn’t stop Labour asking again and again but it’s definitely been asked and answered to death.

  • Nishma, Harrow LD 13th Jul '10 - 1:20pm

    Oh no not references to Yes Minister stereotypes of civil servants AGAIN!!! I’ve done this one to death with Duncan Brack on his article about SPADs!!! We are nothing like Sir Humphrey or Bernard…although I have known a few SPADs like Malcolm Tucker!!!

    @ Mark – At your speech at the Free Society debate a few weeks ago you impressed me with your concepts on the pragmatic implementation of liberal values and ideals. Who do you think will do the implementation?

    Also a bit of advice – you’ve been invited to speak to Harrow LDs in September – the Chair, Organiser and several others, including myself, are civil servants…best not to mention Yes Minister eh! LoL ; )

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jul '10 - 1:52pm

    I’ve fully accepted that the coalition we have was the only realistic outcome given the election results.

    I’ve fully accepted we need to give it time to prove itself – whatever misgivings I have, I accept the Tories got more votes than any other party, therefore a Tory-led government has to be allowed to get on with what Tories do, it;s what the people voted for.

    I’ve fully accepted that our position in the coalition is quite weak – our negotiating strength was not strong because there wasn’t much of an alternative, the Tories know well that they have the power to call an early general election which would benefit them and hurt us, and could do so if we started getting too forceful.

    I’ve, well maybe not fully but partly, accepted that Nick Clegg is the right person to lead us into this – there’s clearly a rapport between him and Cameron that is useful at this stage. The sort of person I’d have preferred to lead the party would probably have got less out of Cameron due to Cameron dismissing him/her as “not our type”.

    OK, but what I would like to see is less smugness from our leadership about this. We have to get across the message that we are doing what we are doing because the country needs a stable government, and because democracy made that a Tory-led government with us as minor players. It is not necessarily what we would be doing if we had a majority Liberal Democrat government.

    So far I can see a lot of very stupid things going through because they are Tory pet projects and it wasn’t worth us throwing out something we cared a lot about as a bargaining chip against these Tory pet projects going through. But can’t we somehow get out the message that there’d be less of this and more sense from the coalition had there been more LibDems and fewer Tories in it?

    We need to get the message to those who are deserting us because of the coalition that the more support we have in the country, the stronger will be our negotiating position in the coalition. We need to move to the position where it’s Cameron and not us who is afraid of the early general election, because they not us would lose from it.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 1:57pm

    “Less smugness”

    Yes, as a “loyalist”, I would go along with that.

  • “Less smugness”
    Yes, as a “loyalist”, I would go along with that.


  • less hype too please. scrap all that nonsense about AV abolishing safe seats, etc

  • Nishma, Harrow LD 13th Jul '10 - 3:16pm

    From what I have seen so far the policy gaffes – BSF, OBR figures, today’s announcement on health, have all been flagship Tory policies. What LD ministers need to do is keep a low profile and sneak in LD policies under the media radar and get the job done. By 2015 we’ll have a whole host of things that we have delivered. Our biggest enemy right now is the media, both the right and left wing press are on the attack…so stay out of the spotlight, get your head down and get working.

    Speaking as a Whitehall veteran of both the past Tory and Labour administrations, the best Ministers are those you’ve never heard of or are rarely on TV… John Healey, Maria Eagle, Sadiq Khan, Rosie Winterton, even Kitty Usher before the expenses thing. Its the Hazel Blears and Tony McNulty’s who talked a lot and delivered nothing in particular over 13 years.

  • @ Nishma –
    But isn’t that a Whitehall insider’s view?
    You might know that these people were good ministers – but if nobody ever hears of them, people won’t know.
    I understand the value of good Ministers for good government, but a party also has to think of election results – and the LibDems have always been suffering from a lack of press coverage, and at this stage, it would not be good to actually make an effort to fly under the radar all over again.

    I would like to see a bit less of what I’d call ‘overClegging the pudding’ – i.e. ‘these are the biggest reforms since eighteen-whatever’ and so forth: it’s going to be so easy to parody that and also to say that goals haven’t been achieved – but I would like to see a steady stream of achievements being publicised in some way. If the press doesn’t do it – get ministers to report it in places like this one at least, or communicate it to interested people in some way.

    I bet at the moment everybody is still exhausted from getting used to being in government – but if LibDem ministers could actually find a way of communicating with voters (LibDems, but everybody else, too, if possible) that could actually give people some sense of ownership and understanding.

    If Cameron can do ‘PM direct’ – why can’t there be a ‘Business Secretary direct’ and so forth?
    The LibDems could strike a somewhat different pose from the two big parties – saying something like ‘we haven’t been in government for 60+ years, and we’ll have a different approach: we’ll talk to voters about what government oes for them’. Trying to show that they are not merely hapless Jim Hacker clones would be a good thing, too. I think many people have that impression of ministers, especially junior ones.

    Not sure whether any of that could be done in practice (what do I know?), but that’s what I’d be considering in any case. Keep those LibDems in government visible outside Westminster/Whitehall (but reasonably down-to-earth while being visible), and that could perhaps make a difference?

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 13th Jul '10 - 4:16pm

    “What LD ministers need to do is keep a low profile and sneak in LD policies under the media radar and get the job done”

    In which case all the electorate will take note of are those horrible Tory policies that are above the radar and which Osborne is skilfully hanging jointly around your necks 😉

    Crikey- how utterly naive !!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Jul '10 - 8:23pm

    As LDV seems determined not to report the NHS White Paper, I’m not sure where this should go, but here seems as good a place as any.

    Here are some comments by Lib Dem Health Minister Paul Burstow. They concentrate on his social care remit, to the extent that the article is entitled “Burstow: PCTs scrapped to aid health and social care links”:

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 10:02pm


    I like that proposal, put Lorely Burt, Simon Hughes, Tim Farron, all of them in front of the camera, really bigging up the positive achievements of their Liberal Democrat ministerial colleagues. When there is a policy that they don’t like, really don’t like and it’s a biggie, then don’t say “I don’t like it” but “most Liberal Democrats don’t like it” and emphasize that the ministerial colleagues are “bound by collegiate responsibility, for the good of the nation in this time of economic turmoil, whilst I wouldn’t like to speak for the minister, I do know him/her well, and I would be surprised if this decision was theirs.” Obviously this defence must be used very sparingly. Get Charles Kennedy on The Week in Politics, as he’s hardly enamoured with the situation and could quite nicely do Diane Abbott’s outsider/insider routine, with his well known charm and humour.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 10:07pm

    Oh, and some Liberal Democrat MPs need to develop some pitbull style aggression. There’s no point getting shouted down all the time, just because you believe in polite and collegiate decision making and discussions. When you’re getting talked over, ranted or sneered at, bite back. Otherwise you look weak or, worse, you look like you don’t like what is going on.

    Enjoy every minute on the government benches. Use them. You have 5 years. You may not have another period in government after that for another 5 years or more.

    Actually look like your enjoying it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jul '10 - 10:51am

    Paul McKeown

    Actually look like you’re enjoying it.

    Sigh, no. As I said, that looks like smugness. Also, I don’t want people in power over me who enjoy being in power. What we want is pained sense of duty, not enjoyment. If we have to go for the early exit strategy, we need to be able to say convincingly we tried but they (the Tories) wouldn’t let us do what we knew needed doing. We can’t do that if we give off the message of smug enjoyment of the trappings of office.

  • Paul McKeown 14th Jul '10 - 11:04am

    @Matthew Huntbach

    “smug enjoyment of the trappings of office” is rather a distortion of “Actually look like your enjoying it”. Many Liberal Democrats are backbench MPs and therefore to accuse them of excessive love of the trappings of office. And for those who are ministers, they should visibly enjoy it, because if they aren’t, then they shouldn’t be there. Would you want them to spend their time looking like Gordon Brown? Smugness is a different issue.

  • Nishma, Harrow LD 14th Jul '10 - 12:31pm

    @Marie & @Rob – I fully accept that my perspective is that of a ‘Whitehall Insider’, though I am by no means part of the inner ministerial circle, but that doesn’t make my perspective any less valid. Furthermore I hardly think that 20 years experience in the public sector makes me ‘naive’ quite the opposite in fact.

    I make no apology for dedicating my life to public service. 1/3 of the workforce are employed directly or indirectly by the public sector. So as a citizens we can easily tell if a policy is flimsy, substanceless and based on little evidence. I am not saying don’t ever blow trumpets in the media… just wait until a) the ideas have been fleshed out with evidence which takes a bit of time and b) when the people themselves have become more consumate media performers (am thinking of Danny Alexander vs Paxman).

    A good policy idea badly implemented or badly presented will be pilloried by the press and may end up being scrapped. My example is that of the Child Support Agency… of course it is a good idea for absent parents to be required to pay maintenence but it was so badly implemented and both the Tory and Labour Ministers defended the policy concept badly in the media that the baby was thrown out with the bath water.

    So my advice to Ministres stands – spend the next 6 months gathering evidence, fleshing out your ideas and most importantly getting buy in from the people that are going to deliver the policy, central and local government, teachers, nurses,police etc., do a few ‘practice’ media interviews, then launch the policy. And both your policy and reputation will be credible and respected. Aim for longevity over short-term popularity.

  • John Fraser 17th Jul '10 - 1:03am

    Sorry guys its not just the messanger its the messages.

    With Paul Butstow enthusiastically proposing the de-democratisation and part privitisation of healcare (not even in the Tory Manifestolet alone ours) . Is it any wonder people people feel chated and mislead . We have a blocking majority for such foolishness its about time the parlimentary party started to get their backbone back and used it..

    We need Liberal democrat ministers not Stepford Wives ..otherwise the coalition is Tory in all but name and the party will face derision.

  • Andrea Gill 17th Jul '10 - 1:23am

    ” We have a blocking majority”

    In which fantasy la-la-land is this? And how about waiting to see what the actual overall plan is before pointing fingers?

  • John Fraser 17th Jul '10 - 1:07pm

    When a government publicises policies they are de fecto open for comment and debate . That dabate or outrage in my case will hopefully effect the final outcome.

    If the policy is not yet fully formed it should not be publicised in its half baked form. If the government omes up with something less silly in the end I will gladly point out that sanity has returned.

    The only way we would not have a probible blcking majority is if enough of our right wing ‘orange book’ MPs actually secreatly wanted policies like this. What is more realistic however is that we put some ‘red lines’ down in internal goverment discussions at an earlier stage. This was not in the coalition agreemet ….this was not in the conservative manifesto we hve an absolute MORAL right to do this.

    If La La land is a land where you still fight for your beiefs and principles . I’m perfectly happy to be there .

  • Sadie Smith 4th Apr '13 - 3:43pm

    Missed this first time round. There was a lot of good advice and goodwill.

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