How many of the new ministers have you heard of before?

Above – From “The Man from Auntie” by Ben Elton – Mrs Thatcher’s then new slogan for her party shortly before her resignation as Prime Minister. Is history repeating itself?

In 1990, Ben Elton did a stand-up routine in the dying days of Thatcher’s administration which sounds very familiar to current events. It was from “The Man From Auntie” [Auntie being the BBC] from Series 1 Episode 4.

Above – Ben Elton gets slightly side-tracked trying to make sense of recent ministerial goings on by comparing love-making with corporate slogans. (Possibly not safe for work!)

This was around the time one famous soft-drinks manufacturer was pumping out adverts like this on telly, not least because there was The World Cup (Italia ’90) happening, with England, Scotland, and the Republic of Ireland all having qualified.

Above – Sing-a-long adverts from the last millennium

When Ben Elton got back to poking fun at then little-known new senior ministers (who went on to become household names – such as John Major (later the Prime Minister, but then a little known politician) and Douglas Hurd (a low-profile minister at the time who became John Major’s Foreign Secretary during the wars in the former Yugoslavia), he described them as suits that no one had heard of.

“Waddington! Who the hell is David Waddington?!? He’s the Home Secretary that’s who! When he leaves [for] work in the morning, even his wife doesn’t recognise him!”

Ben Elton, 1990

But he makes a more serious point afterwards – one that I recall was much more sharp in the uncensored version sold on cassette:

“Cabinet Government is one of the safeguards of our democracy. It involves discussion and consensus.”

He cited in the live standup show historical examples of Cabinet Ministers who didn’t get on but understood the importance of Cabinet Government by selecting rivals to high public office.

  • Winston Churchill being appointed as Chancellor by Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin, and as First Lord of the Admiralty (civilian head of the Navy) by Neville Chamberlain
  • Ernest Bevin being appointed as Minister for Labour and National Service in Churchill’s Wartime Coalition – the two’s animosity dated back to The General Strike 1926 (with Churchill as Chancellor and Bevin the rising star of the massive Transport and General Workers’ Union – Churchill realising he could not win the war without the support of organised Labour. So effectively delegated domestic policy to Bevin, with Parliament passing legislation that made the trade union giant the most powerful man in UK domestic politics ever as far as his legal powers were concerned.
  • Aneurin Bevan – not to be confused with Ernest above, Clement Attlee distrusted Bevan but knew he was essential to the founding of the National Health Service, hence his appointment as Minister for Health. As it was Bevan who led on the postwar policy development and introduced the legislation into Parliament, he is seen as the founding father of the NHS.
  • Tony Benn – a left winger like Bevan above, appointed Minister for Technology in 1966, and Energy Secretary in 1975 by Harold Wilson
  • Margaret Thatcher – appointed Education Secretary by Sir Edward Heath. The two were bitter rivals, but she served as his Education Secretary during Heath’s Government 1970-74.

Fast forward to beyond when the tape and the programme were filmed, even John Major had to appoint people who were from right wing factions in his party – Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley, John Redwood, and Norman Lamont. Similar with Tony Blair in appointing Gordon Brown as Chancellor. One of the criticisms of Gordon Brown was that he didn’t appoint, or had become too big-a-political figure with no rivals during his time as Prime Minister.

By the time Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister, he ruthlessly cleared out anyone who dissented from his line, removing the party whip from a host of longstanding MPs from a more moderate tradition, and having selected in their place a slate of loyalists who had worked for him – including the present MP for South Cambridgeshire.

“How farcical is the present situation?”

Minister who resigned yesterday re-appointed the following day.

Two days gap between resignation and re-appointment for another minister

…and select committee chairs now taking temporary ministerial office

Which is why the calibre of candidates that local parties select – especially in the safer seats, is ever so important in the existing political system. Because otherwise you end up with a slate of candidates drawn from much narrower backgrounds that do not reflect the societies they are standing for election to serve.

Furthermore, given the nature of our existing system and the flaws within it (not least the lack of prominence of more than a few MPs – some of whom spend far too much time on ‘extra curricular activities that are highly remunerated (such as non-executive directorships and consultancies)), you risk ending up with people who don’t put their constituents or constituencies first, or are simply not up to the tasks of either scrutinising the government or holding ministerial office.

Hence the concerns from more than a few quarters that Johnson has been selecting from a political talent pool that is so small it’s more of a talent puddle. And that too many of the new ministers are names that nobody has ever heard of. And “nobodies” are what the present administration seems to be made of – to paraphrase Ben Elton again.

On where we go from here… …that’s for another blogpost. And that one will explore this the foreword from this book issued by the Minister for Education Canada in 1945.

Food for thought?

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