Gordon Brown today gets his come uppance for the crude and unpleasant way Prime Ministers treat colleagues. He inherited from his two past predecessors the bad habit of allowing stories in the press in advance of a reshuffle setting out who is no longer in favour and who has to go. No wonder some Ministers have decided to call his bluff and resign before he can sack them.
This is not a day for sympathy for Miniuters, but let me be unfashionable. If we want Ministers who can do the job well, and who can concentrate on the task in hand, we need the Prime Minister to behave very differently. Newly appointed Ministers should be told what is expected of them, and told how they will be mentored and monitored. This rarely or never happens in government.
The Minister should undergo a private review of performance from time time to time – a Cabinet member from the PM, and junior Ministers from the Cabinet Minister in charge of their department. If a Minister is not measuring up to the job they should be given the chance to improve following private coaching and criticism. if they fail to make the grade they should be given warning that they may have to stand down at the following reshuffle. If they play the game they should not be monstered or briefed against in the press.
Instead we have a crude and nasty system. Ministers who have not been told to improve or change read in the papers that the PM no longer rates them, or read of someone else being groomed for their job. On the day of the reshuffle they are left on the end of their phones, paralysed and unable to command authority in their departments, if they have been given the black spot in the press. There are surprises both ways on the day of the reshuffle. Ministers often get shuffled into jobs they did not want and know nothing about. Then the same wearisome cycle begins all over again.
Proper career planning and time spent on finding out what talents and interests Ministers and potential Ministers have would pay handsome dividends. It is no wonder so many Ministries are so badly led, when you see how the bosses are appointed,and then how they are treated once in place. When I advised Margaret Thatcher I introduced a system of regular bilateral reviews between the PM and each cabinet colleague, so they had an opportunity to set out what they were trying to do, what problems they were encountering, and a chance to hear for themselves what the PM thought of what they were achieiving. It was important to have regular meetings to agree priorities, hammer out diffferences, and to identify early disagreements and disappointments on either side. 20 reports is a lot, but a busy and active PM could handle it. It also gave the PM a total strategic picture of what the government was doing, and enabled her to concentrate on the bigger issues that defined the strategy.