GE2015 minus 24: the political animal

Posted: 13 April 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: ,

One of my favourite non-fiction books to reread is Jeremy Paxman’s The Political Animal. I’m pretty sure he didn’t intent it to be ‘gripping’ but I find it that way every time I dip into it. Well, I say ‘dip into it’; I’ve yet to pick it up and not find myself an hour later still reading. 

Paxman repeatedly makes the point, a fair one I think, that while some things change, particularly the type of person who enters parliament compared to, say, the type who entered Parliament forty years ago, many of the processes are the same, and what it takes to survive and moreover thrive, as an MP. It’s a shocking revelation just how many Prime Ministers we’ve had who lost one or both parents early in life, to the point that one wonders whether if Thomas and Martha Wayne had been British, we’d have ended up with Prime Minister Bruce Wayne.

And, still once ministers, the same complaints have been made by and about them in the twenty first century as were made in the mid-twentieth. Anyone who’s paid any attention in the past half-dozen or so years can’t have been ignorant of the upset caused by MPs expenses, and their pay rise granted, I remind you, by an independent body. Yet the furore about what they’re paid goes way back. 

Indeed, there was a snippet from the Daily Mirror that did the rounds a short while ago from 50 years ago, about an MP complaining that MPs weren’t paid enough. Easy to dismiss as the usual ‘snouts in the trough’ until you realise the MP complaining was Jennie Lee, widow of Aneurin Bevan, and something of a formidable left-wing presence herself. Hardly someone known for being in politics for what she could get out of it.

Paxman spends one chapter discussing the politically convenient resignations from Cabinet and how ostensibly principled resignations rarely turn out to be so. But while a politician may resign from Cabinet, the usual way they leave it is either because they lost the election, in which case they have the solace of company.

Or they get fired. It’s remarkable how few resignations and firings have taken place during the parliament that’s just ended. There are several reasons for this, none of them good for government or politics. While keeping ministers in place for a decent time is good practice, allowing them to mature in their roles, lack of promotion always ferments trouble within a party. Furthermore, the working practices of this coalition government has severely limited the promotion prospects for Tory MPs. I know, I know, some people regard Tories as the great enemy, but there’ve been some very good ministers in their time, and I wonder how many we haven’t seen come through the ranks because of this. 

Moreover, successive Prime Ministers have seemed to regard sacking – or indeed moving – a minister as a signal of personal failure on their part in putting them into the job in the first place! It’s something to ponder that during the past five years, we’ve had one Home Secretary and one Chancellor of the Exchequer; we’ve only had two Foreign Secretaries because William Hague is leaving the Commons and asked to be relieved last year. Whether or not Therese May has been the best Home Secretary or not (and I side with the latter on this) keeping the main four jobs in the grip of essentially the same people for five years is not good. I’ve mentioned before that I think we can blame Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for George Osborne still being in place. Used to be that the Chancellorship was ok, one of the most important cabinet positions, but it was only that: one of the cabinet positions, and they served at the Prime Minister’s pleasure. No longer. Unless genuine ill-health occurs, I can’t see Osborne leaving the Exchequer until and unless David Cameron leaves Downing Street.

Paxman devotes some time to the hiring and of cabinet ministers by various Prime Ministers. He mentions the number of sleepless nights that Prime Ministers have supposedly had when organising reshuffles, and how some Prime Ministers have tried to soften the blow. While new ministers would be invited to walk up Downing Street in front of the massed reporters and tv crews, Margaret Thatcher used to ask those she was sacking to come to the back door so they didn’t have to pass the media who would be shouting “Have you been sacked?”

Here’s Paxman on how one particular Prime Minister dealt with firing in his Cabinet:

There is no disguising the essential fact that you are being dispensed with because the Prime Minister thinks you’re less good at your job than someone else might be. Few have been as brutally frank as Clement Attlee, though. He once got rid of a Scottish Secretary with the words, “Good t’see you. I’m carrying through Government changes. Want your job for someone else. Sake of the party, y’know? Write me the usual letter. Think of something as the excuse: health, family, too much travelling, constituency calls. Anything will do. Good fellow. Thanks.”

For a moment, the minister was stunned. Then it sank in. He was being slung out of the government. “But why, Prime Minister? Why have you sacked me like this, with no warning, with no complaints that I know of?” Attlee, who was already scribbling on the papers on his desk, looked up, removed the pipe from his mouth, and blurted out, “‘Cos you don’t measure up to yer job. That’s why. Secretary will show you out.”

They don’t make ’em like that any more.

Which is a pity, as recognising that a minister ain’t up to the job should be one of the essential Prime Ministerial skills.

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