Here are some further lessons from Yes Prime Minister. This time, mainly from Sir Humphrey, on the art of managing your department minister, however senior he or she might be.
Basic ministerial skills:
- Blurring issues
- Delaying decisions
- Dodging questions
- Juggling figures
- Bending facts
- Concealing errors.
- Ministers, unlike civil servants, are selected completely at random by prime ministerial whim, in recognition of doubtful favours received, or to avoid appointing someone of real ability who might become a threat.
- There are two types of chair for two types of minister. Those that fold up instantly and those that just go round in circles.
- There are a number of issues about which a minister automatically tells lies, and he would be regarded as foolish or incompetent if he told the truth.
- To a minister the word ‘courageous’ is even worse than ‘controversial’. ‘Controversial’ only means it will lose you votes; ‘courageous’ means it will lose you the election.
- Civil servants do not see it as part of their job to help ministers make fools of themselves. They have never met one who needed any help.
- Ministers can never go anywhere without their briefs, in case they get caught with their trousers down.
Proposals and Decisions
Presenting proposals to ministers:
- Ministers will generally accept proposals which contain the words ‘simple’, ‘quick’, ‘popular’ and ‘cheap’.
- Ministers will generally throw out proposals which contain the words ‘complicated’, ‘lengthy’, ‘expensive’ and ‘controversial’.
- If you wish to describe a proposal in a way that guarantees that a minister will reject it, describe it as ‘courageous’.
Then handling their decisions:
- If you are not happy with a minister’s decision there is no need to argue him out of it. Accept it warmly, and then suggest he leaves it to you to work out the details.
- A decision is a decision only if it is the decision you wanted. Otherwise, it is merely the course the minister seems to favour at the moment.
- The pact the Civil Service offers to ministers: If the minister will help us implement the opposite policy to the one to which he is pledged, we will help him pretend that he is in fact doing what he said he was going to do.
- A minister’s absence is the best cover for not informing him of things it is better he should not know. And, for the next six months, if hecomplains of not having been informed about something, you can tell him it came up while he was away.
- It is not necessarily necessary to let ministers know what everybody else knows.
The futility of political ambition
- Ministers do not believe they exist unless they are reading about themselves in the newspapers.
- To watch a Cabinet minister in action is to watch the endless subordination of long-term important issues to the demands of urgent trivia.
- Ministers are always vulnerable when they are in a hurry. That is why we always keep them busy.
And now a final gem
Sir Humphrey: Bernard, ministers should never know more than they need to know. Then they can’t tell anyone. Like secret agents, they could be captured and tortured.
Bernard Woolley: You mean by terrorists?
Sir Humphrey: By the BBC, Bernard.