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What are junior Ministers for?

By Harry Phibbs
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As the weeks go by, the speculation about a Ministerial reshuffle has shifted to the junior Ministers. In many respects this is encouraging. During the Labour Government, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shuffled people around too much. John Reid used to move about once a year - Transport Minister, Scottish Secretary, Northern Ireland Secretary, Leader of the House, Health Secretary, Defence Secretary, Home Secretary. Mr Reid had the satisfaction of being promoted, but not of having the chance to achieve anything.

What is of concern though, is a suggestion in the Daily Telegraph today that the appointment of new Ministers, and the promotion of existing ones, will be based on who can most effectively communicate in the media.

The report says:

Esther McVey, a former GMTV presenter and junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, is likely to be promoted to a more prominent Government role by David Cameron, the Daily Telegraph understands.

According to Whitehall sources Downing Street “just love putting a northern woman up on television to speak for the government”.

Miss McVey, who has a seat in her native Merseyside, entered Parliament at the 2010 election.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, is also believed to be heading for a ministerial post.

Mr Zahawi is seen as a reliable media performer who can both defend the Government and successfully attack Labour.

It is reasonable that as the General Election approaches, communication has a higher priority than in the first half of the Parliament. To catch the attention of voters it also probably helps if Ministers don't all look and sound the same. Yet the cynical view that Ministers are just there to put out the message is flawed. They have important specialist areas of responsibility. They should, and often do, come up with proposals for reform.

Usually those bringing in effective policies that they believe in, are also effective communicators. For example, Grant Shapps when he was Housing Minister was high profile but also strongly engaged in the substance of his portfolio. He delivered a series of radical changes and was trusted by the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, to get on with it. Of course having a secretary of state who can trust you enough to delegate is key. Chris Mullin diaries offer an amusing account of how he was given nothing to do at International Development.

The Education Minister Liz Truss has clear views of what she is trying to achieve. So she should be promoted not because she is a woman but because she is a sound Conservative and of proven capability.

Francis Maude is another highly effective Minister (not that as Paymaster General he is terribly junior). He has shown great toughness in reforming the way Government works. He has stood up to resistance from the civil servants, the trade unions, and the other vested interests.

By contrast, another Minister at the Cabinet Office, the Charities Minister Nick Hurd, has been a failure. Mr Hurd sees his role as being to represent the "sector" - all those chief executives on six figure salaries running highly politicised, inefficient, bureaucratic, taxpayer funded outfits with little resemblance to proper charities.

Another failure was Tim Loughton who as Children's Minister was a reliable voice in defending, rather than challenging, social work orthodoxies - for instance, seeking to justify the scandalously low adoption rate. The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, is an example of a cabinet minister who has been swallowed by her civil servants and just reads out all the socialist guff they give her.

Ministers perform well in the media if they believe and understand what they are talking about. They need to have the self-confidence to express their arguments consistently with collective policy but in their own words. They needs authenticity. The viewers can spot it if someone is winging it. That matters more than the age or class or race or sex of the Minister.

No doubt some spin doctor somewhere thought that putting up the new young female Treasury Minister Chloe Smith to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman was good image projection. The interview was a disaster. (Although Miss Smith survived and is now doing a good job at the Cabinet Office.)

Conservative Ministers in this Government- both inside and outside the Cabinet - have a task to transform the nation by delivering a distinctively Conservative agenda. In many respects this is being achieved despite the constraints of coalition. Appointing lightweights due to a supposed presentational benefit would be misguided.


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