A 3am A&E trip and ‘Yes, Minister’ moments: Five things we learned from the IfG’s latest Ministers Reflect interviews

Former constitution minister Chloe Smith ended up in hospital after working too hard, whilst Brandon Lewis clashed with an official on his first day as minister
Chloe Smith. Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

12 Sep 2023

 

Candid admissions and revelations from ex-cabinet ministers highlight the realities of what really goes on in government, in the latest swathe of in-depth interviews for the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series.

Chloe Smith admits she may have been too young to become a minister

Conservative MP Chloe Smith, who was 29 when she was appointed economic secretary to the Treasury by then-prime minister David Cameron in 2011, admits the promotion may have come too soon. It was a “challenging” time, she said. Being a minister at 29 “is very young, and there’s no denying it; you just need to gain experience and gain knowledge quickly.”

Smith said she has “always been a fan of encouraging young people into politics but, on reflection, I would urge people to make sure they do have the experience and the knowledge that’s right for them before they go into major roles of responsibility like that”. In her case, she said: “Over the span of time, I know I’ve gained a great deal of the skills that are needed, but I can’t lie to you and say I don’t look back with occasional moments of embarrassment at that first year of being a minister.”

The drive at DCMS to be seen as a serious player

Former digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman described the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s desperation to be taken seriously. “The big argument that we were constantly trying to win was that this is not the 'department for fun', this is a hugely economically important department and it punches above its weight in terms of numbers of people.”

“The broadband brief; the national security stuff around it; when I was doing the online safety stuff; all of those things, those are not 'department for fun' things,” he said. “One is a whacking great infrastructure project, the other stuff is genuinely human safety or national security. These are things that you could equally, in a different world, have seen in BEIS, or the Home Office, and no one calls them the 'department for fun'.”

Sir Brandon Lewis on his Yes, Minister moment on his very first day

Lewis's first ministerial post was in 2012, when he became parliamentary under secretary in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Lewis recalled having a briefing from officials on his first day in the job. “One of the officials who I think is still there said, 'Minister, while you’re here, we’ve got your first ministerial letter to sign, it’s a guidance note.' I’d been a councillor, so I knew what a guidance note was, I knew it goes to all councils to explain the guidance on a particular issue.” Lewis read the note, which related to planning, and told the official: “This guidance note is explaining why on this particular issue there is no government guidance.”

"And he did have the good decency to say, 'Yes minister',” Lewis said.  The ex-minister commented: “To this day, I don’t know if he was genuinely just being entertaining, or completely oblivious to the irony of the situation. I politely declined to sign that letter and got on with the rest of the day.”

Minister ended up in hospital after working on elections policy

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chloe Smith, then minister for the constitution and devolution, was also being treated for breast cancer. She was working on policy looking at whether it was possible to run local elections in 2021, in what she called “one of the oddest weeks I think I’ve ever had.” This was “because I was beavering away on that policy, and actually, I was really not very well at the time. I didn’t realise it and it was building through this particular week. I ended up in A&E at 3am in the morning on the Saturday afterwards.”

Smith added: “I hadn’t realised how I was pushing myself, frankly, too far whilst I was taking pretty major health treatment – so a slight lesson of self care.”

The Home Office’s silo mentality and obsession with seniority

Ex-Home Office minister Sir Brandon Lewis found that the department “works in siloes” and that while “all departments really want the secretary of state’s attention... that is more extreme in the Home Office than anywhere else.” This resulted in a situation where everything was being sent to the home secretary.

Lewis raised the issue with both Amber Rudd and Priti Patel, telling them: “Sending subs [submissions – documents of written advice from civil servants] in parallel is ridiculous, because, if we disagree, the first time we know it is when we’re actually arguing about it.” He said: “As the junior minister, my view was that I should get the sub first, give a view; you’re the home secretary, if you disagree, whether I like it or not, that’s hierarchy, that’s fair.”

Lewis added: “Both with Amber, but then again with Priti, we resolved this and just had the conversation, and she directed the private offices not to do it that way. But we had to do it and then we had to do it again.” This was because “the automatic direction in the Home Office was 'everything goes to the home secretary'.”
 

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