November 15, 2013 7:08 pm

Yes, minister, you’re fired

‘The arc of a political career is shortening – with all the consequent loss of political expertise to government’
An illustration of a Conservative minister being dumped to make room for someone younger©Lucas Varela

An old friend of mine was sacked recently. There was no warning; no process followed; nothing to suggest he was not entirely competent at his job; and he was explicitly dumped to make room for someone younger. In any other sphere this would be an industrial tribunal waiting to happen. But my friend was a Conservative minister so there will be no legal recourse and, by and large, people are managing to hold back the tears.

Now I’m biased, of course. There are, after all, few better uses of taxpayers’ money than providing gainful employment for one’s friends. I also recognise that my response is partly a stage-of-life indicator. Two decades ago my sympathies might have been with the impatient young Turk who found his path blocked by some old time-server. Nowadays, I’ve started to come round to the value of experience. (Don’t even get me started on the notion of being old enough to have friends sacked in ministerial reshuffles.)

This former minister – whose blushes I’ll spare – was good at his job, he quietly got on with mastering his brief. Alas, though he had substance, he lacked flash; he was not a media star and he wasn’t part of David Cameron’s cappuccino circle, so when the PM wanted to freshen up his team, my friend was on the wrong side of the ledger. It’s a pity because he was the type of person you want to see in politics; he came from an ordinary, unprivileged background and had built a career outside of politics before becoming an MP. As I say, I’m biased; but his story was not a one-off and, besides, my complaint is more with the decision’s underpinning logic. For politics is one of those rare careers where quiet competence is a disadvantage. On being eased out he was told by Cameron that he had “done a good job” but that his job was needed to make room for some up-and-comers.

Put crudely, once it was decided my friend wasn’t going to continue moving up, it was a matter of time before he would be moving out. Experience; well, yes, it’s nice to have, but at the executive level what you really need is momentum. If you aren’t heading for the summit, you are over the hill. This then is the Logan’s Run theory of governance. The old politicians are sacrificed for the renewal of the administration and for reasons of party management, something made even more complex in coalition when a leader has fewer roles to play with. Few voters will recognise the replacements but the next generation of MPs have to be helped along because they too are ambitious people. Move along now, old boy – I may only be in office for a couple of years and I’ve got my next career to plan.

The arc of a political career is shortening – everything is happening and ending faster – with all the consequent loss of political expertise to government. Where once a minister would be valued for being an experienced and safe pair of hands, now he’s a bed-blocker. This says something about the decreasing value of most ministerial posts if they are merely staging posts in a career rather than genuine executive roles.

This creates a new problem for society: the swelling ranks of still middle-aged ex-ministers floating around public life looking for something to do. Imagine 100 Tony Blairs jetting around the world collecting consultancy fees and trying to help dictators burnish their image.

All this reminded me of a decent, thoughtful and capable cabinet minister from the Major era called Tony Newton. Though close to Major, he wasn’t much of a public performer and so was regularly tipped for the axe. But he was good at his job so he stayed, substance winning out over flash. Today he might be lucky to last.

Of course, this is not a wholly new phenomenon. But the merry-go-round is getting faster; good people are being hurled off sooner and when ability is increasingly measured with media metrics, there is no reason to assume their successors are actually any better at governing. These are the terms of trade of modern politics. Anyone tempted?

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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