Ministers are most vulnerable in the early days of their new department. They must focus fast on the political priorities before administrative burdens drown their enthusiasm – and their careers.
When Michael Howard, then environment secretary, entered the Home Office in 1993, it was a surprise and he told me so. It was just before the Whitsun weekend, and all of Whitehall was looking forward to a week off. In Howard’s new office, senior environment officials and private secretaries toasted his promotion. He took one glass, before asking the Home Office’s permanent secretary and director of information to come over and brief him.
Ten minutes later, they were led into Howard’s inner sanctum. An hour passed, and the now-ashen Home Office mandarins appeared. Declining a glass of wine through clenched teeth, the permanent secretary muttered: ‘I think we’ve got rather a lot of work to do.’
It was his own fault. Having laid out the awfulness of the job, he had told Howard: ‘The Home Office always responds to strong political direction.’ Howard promptly got the message – and the lights stayed on in the Home Office all weekend and most of the following week.
But despite the challenge faced, Howard did not ease his departmental journey by taking some familiar civil servants with him. Like many of his Labour and Tory predecessors, he knew this would taint their impartiality.
Sadly, some permanent secretaries forget this. One of them – still around today – rang me after a previous reshuffle: the newly appointed minister was bringing with him a new information director. I had to shift the old one. The minister was offended when I reminded him that this information director was a civil servant, not a politician. Some people never learn.