It is often easier to get into office than to be in power. The kind of politicians who are good at easing and charming their way into an official position, sometimes cannot remember why they wanted to be there by the time they make it. Some may never have had anything particular in mind to do. Some are happy to adopt whatever agenda the civil service, the EU or a past Minister left lying around for them. Some are soon hit by an unexpected crisis. Free of ideology in such circumstances can mean bereft of an anchor or set of principles by which to steer and judge.
This was not true of Margaret Thatcher. She always knew there was a country to save and dragons to slay. She did not rest content with being the first woman Prime MInister, or feel that the state of the UK in 1979 was broadly acceptable, requiring just a little tinkering and bit of management. She wanted to create industrial peace in place of the endless strife. She wanted many more people to enjoy what had been the privileges of the few. She wanted to end inflation and make saving and investing worthwhile. She wanted to tackle the communist threat from without. She was not radical when it came to the NHS or comprehensive schools or even welfare.
My predecessor(but one) at the Policy Unit, John Hoskyns, ran a small unit of three people. He specialised in the Union issue and helped her with the first important steps towards Trade Union reform. He was often at variance with the official civil service and found getting into other matters than the central economic reform difficult. Taking over from Ferdy Mount, I inherited and recruited a unit of ten people, with a remit to engage with all policy areas with the exception of foreign affairs, and intelligence. The Prime Minister for her second Parliament in office, wanted better back up and analysis from a home team. I was careful to position and run the unit as a civil service unit, with two official civil servants, two former Political Advisers, one former journalist, three seconded business people, one person directly recruited from from business, and one recently retired senior accountant. We did not attend political meetings, nor brief the media (save for an occasional background brief on big issues which I did for the lobby at Bernard Ingham’s request)
I set about studying what the Prime Minister needed. Often she was called upon as a judge, to adjudicate between departments in dispute over an issue. In such a role she needed help in assessing the strength of the various cases put in, in establishing lines of questioning to probe the differences, and suggested criteria or principles for coming to a judgement. Quite simply at times she needed a translation and precis service, to turn hundreds of pages of leaden civil service prose into something clear and focused for a busy woman.
More importantly, I wanted to help her to be strategic. She did not need to intervene in dozens of issues where a Secrerary of State should be free to make his own decisions. I wanted to help her influence or decide the big calls that would shape the government. I wanted her to ensure progress and success where the governing politicians had promised to take action as a Cabinet or political group. I also wanted her to be able intervene to stop some legislation and administration that lobby groups or the civil service favoured which had no great cause behind it. All too often the so called apolitical ” necessary” or “tidying up” bill sparked a bigger row than a very political measure, without delivering any great national gain.
She agreed that we would have a weekly bilateral meeting. I would send her a list of the main policies and actions being taken in each department and where they had got to. I would highlight major issues where the Manifesto had promised action or she had expressed a wish to do something. I would also list any bigger items planned by departments where I thought there could be political and financial cost for no obviously good reason.
She liked this system. I always sought to arrange regular bilaterals for her with the leading Secretaries of State, so they could be sure in private of any important view she held, and could tell her what they intended or explain why they were doing what they were doing. There had to be plenty of private talking to ensure common aims and success.
One of the nicest things she ever said after this system had been working for sometime was she welcomed the service the Policy Unit gave, because she could get so much more done.