Working with government ministers: the human side

In these darker times I believe we could do with a little colour about the human side of government ministers when working with their lawyers.

Anthony Inglese on 07/07/20

First a word about me: I advised ministers in all governments for nearly 40 years from 1975.

The job of legal advisers is to give ministers their best advice, fully and frankly, objectively and with impartiality, including political impartiality. Government is entitled to make decisions. The lawyer advises on the best ways of making those decisions and on the likelihood of their being successfully challenged. Advice needs to be constructive, to help facilitate what Government wants to do, provided that it is within the law. You don’t discuss politics or personalities with your ministers.

Now a longer word about ministers: they come in all different shapes and sizes, but present in all ministers are, to one degree or another, the following qualities: ability, never to be underestimated; ambition; commitment to service; shrewdness; willingness to make decisions and defend them, and generally to front up to parliament and the media; a liking for power so as to give them the ability to get things done; a strong sense of where power lies and how to get it and a fear of losing their influence. MPs have to knock on doors to get votes, so most of them tend to be in tune with the views of their constituents on basic issues such as law and order.

A blame culture surrounds some ministers, but it’s hard to blame them for that in turn because they are under constant attack in parliament and in the media and their careers can be snuffed out overnight. One evening on the way home I met one of my highly able junior ministers on the tube. He told me he was off to “do Paxman”. I wished him good luck. “I’ll need it,” he joked, “or you might not see me tomorrow.”

Most ministers did show their sense of humour – and they usually needed one. I had a soft spot for the minister who when I entered his room used to say “here comes my legal beagle” and the one who when I attended at my senior level one of her routine briefing meetings said “oh dear, this must be trouble”. 

One of the ministers with whom I worked most closely was an Attorney General. I still remember the evening when I said something rather pompous and formal to him and he pricked my bubble with the generous words, “Oh sit down. Have a drink!” And he fished out his whisky bottle.

One day I went into his room. He was sitting at his desk, holding his telephone set in the air and trying to fix something underneath it with the point of a letter opener. His staff joked that he thought his phone was bugged but in reality it was probably a loose connection.

This Attorney had a brilliant command of language and was much loved and respected by all his staff.  The practice of the office was that, when the Attorney has been asked to advise other ministers and it is known what is in the Attorney’s mind, the responsible lawyer in the office would offer the Attorney a draft of the advice. Sometimes the draft is signed by the Attorney with no amendments or only minimal ones. 

One day in the middle of the morning I took a draft into the Attorney’s room hoping he would sign it then and there. He didn’t. He made me sit down in case I needed to offer further advice while he started making small stylistic amendments in fountain pen. The small amendments necessitated larger ones, and then fundamental ones, including amendments to the amendments, until the pages of the draft were completely filled with blue ink: ink between the lines, ink in the margins, ink sideways down the margins and ink on the other side of the page. After nearly two hours of grunting approval to the changes I was getting desperate, as I had fixed lunch with somebody and my departure time was rapidly approaching, was reached, was passed … In those days one didn’t raise this sort of thing with the Attorney, and there were no mobile phones. I kept wanting to say to him “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good” – admittedly not for his sake but for the sake of my lunch. Or rather for the sake of the colleague who was probably now waiting at the table. At one point my frustration showed itself: I glanced up in despair at the ceiling. Without looking at me the Attorney carried on amending and said: “Yes, I know it is annoying you, Anthony, but this is going to the Prime Minister.” 

Different ministers prefer to have their meetings in different settings: round tables, on sofas, rarely round their desks. One minister had meetings in a small space: we sat on a low sofa or low chairs while he sat on a high ergonomic office chair, towering over us only a few inches away. 

When I was very early in my career I went to a small meeting with my department’s  junior minister in the Lords. This was my first ever meeting with him. There were no introductions. Soon it came round to my turn to fill him in on the legal side. I pitched in. He immediately boomed down the table, “And who are you?” He was what I would call an exception to the general rule that Lords ministers were unfailingly courteous.

Legal advisers often have views about ministers who are themselves lawyers. I don’t mean here the Law Officers. I mean departmental ministers. If the lawyer-minister takes the legal advice on board with full understanding or even challenges it intelligently, all is fine. Indeed a good departmental lawyer will listen to challenge and may even need to change the advice in consequence. The problems arise when the minister doesn’t like the legal advice, challenges unintelligently and plays the “You can’t be right – I’m a lawyer, you know” card. It’s not common but if it happens it can sometimes get personal. 

In one department my Secretary of State decided that he would organise a brief social session for his new ministerial team to meet the Director Generals over a drink. I was chatting to one of the ministers. Slightly slouching, he was going through the usual questions with me – who are you? what do you do here? – until I said to him, “Actually you’re my MP.” He then grew six inches in height, looked at me properly and started quizzing me energetically on constituency matters. Fifteen years later we still stop and chat about all sorts of things and he has been to my house on local business. He has also knocked on the door whilst canvassing, though funnily enough he didn’t talk politics when doing so.

It was my experience that most ministers, like most MPs, spent Fridays in their constituencies; not a lot of government business was done on Fridays, and the main parliamentary business involved private member’s bills. One minister with whom I worked closely was always in the office on Fridays. He used to complain, “Am I the only minister in Whitehall who is at his desk on Fridays?” 

One illustrious minister whom I had to advise was easily bored. At a tiny meeting one day I made the mistake of beginning my advice to him by mentioning a section in an Act (“under section 18 …”). I lost him immediately. He looked down, picked up a paperweight and played with it throughout the time I was speaking. The experience of course taught me the lesson to capture the minister’s imagination from the outset. This usually worked. Later in my career, however, I had to advise a Chancellor of the Exchequer on a particular issue. There was a genuine problem but I had found a way through, which I thought would please him. In an attention-capturing spirit I opened by telling him I had found an answer. He cut me off and said, “Just tell me how bad a situation we are in.” Unknown to me he was seeking help from the whips and the likelihood of his getting the help was in direct proportion to the dire nature of the situation.

And then there is the minister who actually knows more that you do about things you feel you should know more about than the minister. When I was at HMRC I went to have a meeting with a new Attorney General. I was all set to tell him what HMRC did and about some of our litigation. Although it was not on the cv that I had seen, I soon learnt that whilst practising at the Bar he had done a lot of work for HMRC and its forerunners. Instead of just inducting him I found that we were quickly inducting each other. 

Law Officers often like to visit legal teams to find out what the work is like at the coal face. When one law officer came to visit my department I made sure she got to spend nearly all of her time with the teams in whose work we knew she was most closely interested. I knew that she was a good friend of my Secretary of State but it hadn’t occurred to me that she was going to phone the Secretary of State afterwards and enthuse about her visit and about what a good team I had the good fortune to run. This stood me in good stead with the Secretary of State for years.

Finally, one way of judging the human side of a minister is whether he or she stops to talk to you when you bump into each other in, say, the street after the working relationship has ended. You wouldn’t be surprised if I said that they all breeze on by, but my experience has been that every minister has stopped for a chat and even the occasional peck on the cheek. Even the fearsome minister with whom I was in the middle of a big run-in on a legal point when I had the good fortune to gain promotion to a post in another department waved at me across the floor of a restaurant with a smile when I saw him a few years later.

So what do I take from this? Ministers do come in all shapes and sizes but their public persona is often not the “real them”, and in working with them you need to understand the person you are advising and what drives them, remembering that they are people and not just the office they hold. It had never occurred to me that I would be given an opportunity to experience the human side of ministers at work when I became a government lawyer, but this has been one of the greatest pleasures in the job and I still think how lucky I was. 

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