As I pointed out earlier, enlarging constituencies to 50,000 or so enabled us to remove power from voters and transfer it to parties (The EU, with MEP constituencies of 250,000 or more, is as usual ahead of us in combating the evils of unbridled democracy) Since the governing party operates through ministers, our task is to ensure that ministers do not interfere with the serious business of government.
Fortunately the calibre of ministers is almost uniformly exceedingly low largely because the Prime Minister has so little choice. Assuming the governing party has 300 – odd members, a hundred will be too young and inexperienced, a hundred will be too old and stupid, leaving the Prime Minister with only about a hundred MPs to fill a hundred government posts. What is more his criterion for appointment is not suitability for the job, it is the repayment of political debts, the silencing of difficult supporters, or the placating of awkward groups within the parliamentary party. Intelligence, experience and efficiency rarely come into it. That is why in a crisis most of them behave like one of the two types of office chair: they either fold up instantly or go round and round in circles.
Obviously a career in politics is no training for government. Nevertheless ministers do have certain skills. These include blurring issues, avoiding decisions, dodging questions, juggling figures, bending facts and concealing errors. All these can be useful to us on occasions. And they do perform certain useful functions for their departments: they are advocates, making their department’s actions seem plausible to Parliament and the public; they steer our legislation through the House; and they fight the cabinet and the Treasury for the funds we need to do our job. But we have to make sure that is all they do.
But they do have one other function. If things go wrong (as they do even in the best of departments) ministers can be sacked, demoted, moved sideways, resign or be ennobled, leaving most of us who do the real work unscathed. People will then think the problem is solved. This not only protects us, but also gives us a new minister who is easy to manipulate. The greatest ministerial benefit of all to a department is the sacrificial function.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 30 September 2010