Jonathan McHugh illustration

Benjamin Franklin once said that by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. But when I started work as a special adviser in the coalition government four years ago, I feared that the preparation I had undertaken was worse than none at all.

True, the think-tank where I had worked for two years boasted close ties to the Liberal Democrats. But it had misread the party’s pulse, predicting that the Lib Dems would never stomach coalition with the Tories. The three pamphlets I had written took Gordon Brown’s side against George Osborne in the political row over tax and spend. I had met Vince Cable, my future boss, perhaps half a dozen times; I doubt he remembered any of them. I did not know where to find BIS, the branch of Whitehall that was now Mr Cable’s domain, or even what the acronym stood for (it is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills). I blithely thought that making policy inside government would be like prognosticating on it for a think-tank: evidence-led, rational, and quite immediate. My expectations were soon overturned.

The first thing I learnt was that there is no such thing as HM Government. Westminster is a ship without a bridge; there is no captain who can observe everything and steer a course. There are only the departments – 20 or so disparate organisations, peopled by stubbornly uncommunicative officials, each with its own direction of travel and prone to colliding with the others. Now, for the first time since the days of Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition, they were led by politicians who found themselves together in high office through the brilliance with which they had tried to take each other down.

Westminster resembles a squabbling common room. At its best, this makes for a fertile conflict of ideas. A war of words is a sign that things are working well. But mostly, things are not working well. Much of the time, Whitehall throngs with officials struggling just to find out what is going on. The sound of dysfunction is not the cacophony of argument, but the silence of suppressed documents and unreturned phone calls. (Officials in at least one department are rumoured to require the secretary of state’s written permission before engaging in any form of communication at all.)

This magnifies the need for a network of clever insiders, and led me to a second lesson. Bernard Woolley, the principal private secretary immortalised by Derek Fowlds in the BBC sitcom Yes Minister, is portrayed as knowledgeable but naive. I found the opposite to be true. The best private secretaries are politically savvy, well-connected and almost indecently relaxed, given their elevated sphere of action. My abiding memory of early meetings with the chancellor was of his excellent private secretary casually jotting down minutes, and later smoothing the edges of disagreement with his equally breezy opposite number. The great men and women of politics find such nameless fixers indispensable to their ascent.

Politicians have to govern on matters far beyond their experience, from European state aid rules and furniture safety standards to home insulation techniques – and this led to a third surprise. Maligned as they are, corporate lobbyists are vital to the functioning of democratic government. I had expected to find them bullying and wholly self-interested; to be avoided at all costs. They are no doubt as hungry for access as their reputation suggests. But this is mostly because they are well placed to understand the disquieting levels of ignorance that surround political decision making.

The lobbyist of popular imagination is a sinister figure, roaming the corridors of power in an expensive suit to advance the dastardly schemes of Big Oil. His real-life counterpart is more like the earnest representative of the Royal Society for the Protection of Accidents, desperate to prevent us from absent-mindedly abolishing significant safety rule. You cannot regulate banks armed only with a textbook. No matter how unpopular the industry in question, abstaining from contact makes no sense.

It is sometimes said that Mr Brown’s greatest accomplishment as chancellor was keeping Britain out of the euro. But my fourth surprise was that, inside government at least, the Treasury has in effect abolished the pound. A currency should play three roles: a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. But the pounds assigned to ministries in departmental budgets do none of these things. Money you fail to spend one year risks vanishing into the Treasury coffers; you cannot keep it in store for the next. Nor can it be exchanged with other departments. Often it cannot be diverted from one purpose to another, even within a department.

The characteristic flexibility and endurance that makes money indispensable to life on earth has, in Whitehall, been stripped away by the Treasury to give the chancellor more control over how resources are used. Officials must resort to fiendish schemes to win themselves a degree of flexibility that private sector executives take for granted.

My fifth surprise was a pleasant one. The business of government turns out to be interesting and fulfilling work. Outside Whitehall, attention is focused on the grand battles between great men and women about fundamental values and trade-offs. But for me, the real interest lies in the skirmishes – the art of reaching a deal within a world of imperfect knowledge and haphazard communication, where a good idea is threatened as much by ignorance or exhaustion as by political opposition. It is a world of unwritten bargains that history seldom records. I once pushed through a regulatory measure on taxi drivers in return for something unrelated concerning oil from the tar sands of Alberta.

Towards the end of my time in government I learnt of a plan to scrap a £300m fund for helping disadvantaged students into university. Telling the right people what this money achieved was one of the best things I did. I learnt about it from a lobbyist.

Politicians often like to grandstand about the green economy, social mobility or better educated children. That is easy work. Only by stirring Whitehall from its inertia can progress be made. And that is what takes real political talent.

The writer was special adviser to Vince Cable from 2010 to 2014

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