How do opposition MPs prepare for government?

By on 06/05/2024 | Updated on 09/05/2024
A photo of a street sign of Whitehall, where many government offices are based.
Whitehall. Photo by Steph Gray via Flickr

Local election results last week are a further indication that the UK could be heading for a change of government in the general election that is likely to take place this year. In this article, first published in February, Leighton Andrews, professor of practice in public service leadership and innovation at Cardiff Business School and a former Welsh Government minister, sets out the six key skills that ministers need when they enter government

Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet has now started “access talks” with the civil service as they prepare for the possibility of government. Being in government is different from being in opposition and Labour has been in opposition in Westminster for a very long time.

New ministers will have to perform their new role from the moment of their appointment, and few in Starmer’s team have any ministerial experience. There’s no manual for the job, though these days some training is available.

Since 2015, former ministers have been telling the Institute for Government (IfG) what makes for an effective minister. I’ve tried below, based on research for my new book, Ministerial Leadership, to distil some of that advice to highlight five skills Labour MPs hopeful of a role in a future government will need to hone.

1. How to ask stupid questions

First, ministers have to remember they are politicians and that their value lies in their political judgement. What seems obvious to a politician may be a revelation to a civil servant, who may not have direct experience of how policies play out on the ground.

But ministers aren’t the technical experts, so that also means new ministers mustn’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions. Unless they understand something fully, they won’t be able to explain it to their colleagues, let alone the public.

2. How to move from solo operator to team player

Incoming government ministers must remember they’re part of a team, both of ministers in their department and a member of a governmental team overall. Everything they do in government depends on teamwork, Labour MP Margaret Beckett told the IfG. Cabinet structures – committees, the sign-off of policies, the Cabinet Manual – reinforce that, as does the doctrine of collective responsibility spelt out in the ministerial code.

This is about more than formalities. It’s also a question of how ministers project themselves as part of a governmental team, advancing the government’s overall narrative.

That means that MPs who become ministers need to ask themselves regularly how what they are doing in their department contributes to the government’s programme, performance and perception. Teamwork isn’t always the most obvious attribute in an ambitious political world, but it’s key in government.

3. How to make use of (and respect) civil servants

The civil service is not the enemy of government ministers. Most civil servants want to help ministers get things done in an appropriate way. They have skills, systems and networks.

These can be made to work for a minister’s benefit if the minister can be clear about what they want. Old hands still praise the quality of the civil service – some still call it a Rolls-Royce. But as Conservative peer Michael Heseltine says, the minister needs to drive it.

The civil service isn’t perfect. There’s now a consensus on the challenges it faces, including the loss of institutional memory, accentuated by frequent churn as officials move jobs, and a failure to think deeply about future challenges.

4. How to schedule thinking time

Protecting space in your diary has been part of ministerial folklore since Gerald Kaufman wrote How to be a Minister in 1980. Ministers have hectic schedules but everyone needs thinking time to focus on their priorities, sometimes away from the routine of briefings and meetings.

Former Labour minister Hilary Benn now says: “iIf I had my time again, setting aside time to think [is what I’d do]. Because if you’re in the moment, going from engagement to engagement, box to box, you don’t always get the time to think and you need to do that.”

So ministers need to know whether they are on track. What isn’t working out? What should they or the department stop doing to allow other things to flourish? These are the types of questions a minister must ask themselves to ensure their diary is packed in the right way.

5. How to find the way back to parliament

When they become ministers, politicians don’t stop being MPs. They have to continue representing their constituents. The department is not their only job.

In fact, the institutional embrace can be suffocating so, as former Labour minister Jack Straw puts it, time spent in the House of Commons is never time wasted. Parliament gives a minister intelligence on how policies are being received and potential problems that need tackling.

6. How to deliver

Having a policy isn’t enough for a minister. They need to know how it is going to be delivered and what the critical stages of that delivery are – as well as how to keep track of them. If legislation is needed, policies can take years to implement.

Ministers need to have a view of the critical path to delivering the policy: its legitimation through a bill in parliament, the drafting of administrative rules for implementation, the actual rollout of the policy in practice. There are many steps along the way which need to be tracked.

My research suggests that ministers have become a lot more conscious of the need to follow a policy through to its delivery and implementation on the ground on the last 25 years. They know that the practicalities of a failed policy on the ground can haunt them and the government for years after.

Meanwhile, successive prime ministers have become more obsessive about delivery since Tony Blair established his prime minister’s delivery unit in 2001, so ministers know that the centre is watching. They have developed their own practical steps to check policy implementation. Former Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickles, for example, implemented a tracker system in his department to “ruthlessly” monitor progress on the 40 most important items on his to-do list.

So you’re a government minister now?

Being a minister demands performance every minute of the day in an environment that is more scrutinised – through social media – than ever. Many feel like an imposter on first arriving. Sometimes the pressures can overwhelm. But it’s all temporary.

The ministerial life is relatively short so it’s not unreasonable for a minister to think about what they will do after they’ve left government. They will be aware that political parties can be particularly brutal to those who no longer have the status they once did.

Those who survive best afterwards are often the ones who maintain external friendships. Knowing how to keep a hinterland is perhaps the most important skill of all. There is a life after politics.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About Leighton Andrews

Leighton Andrews is professor of public service leadership at Cardiff University

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