Books: Polonius or Pollyanna
Sunday 23 February 1997
Gerald Kaufman's face dominates the cover of this new edition of his book. The eyes are Body Shop bright and the mouth suggests cleverness and humour. On his chin-cupping hand is a gigantic, multi-stoned ring, of the kind that small girls and vain men admire. It tells us that this man - although once himself a minister - is never entirely serious; that the elaborate theatre of politics appeals just as much as (if not more than) the grim and important exercising of power. No wonder he is much in demand at the many seminars and courses currently being held to prepare the neophytes of New Labour for office.
But should the nervous men and women - most of whom were not even in Parliament when Labour ministers last stalked Whitehall - listen too closely to what Gerald has to tell them? And should we seek to track their progress by reading this book and noting which of its injunctions have been observed?
Probably. For one thing, those of us who question the sanity of men and women who work all hours for small remuneration, little recognition and with seemingly small success, can learn from Kaufman's description of the epicurean, almost sensual, pleasures of being a junior minister. There's the car, the Private Secretary to be summoned at the depression of a buzzer, the special lift, the Red Box to be delivered when the neighbours are at home and watching. And, above all, the sense of being there.
Kaufman's Polonian injunctions on mastering your briefs (in the non-Mellorian sense), squaring colleagues, time management, the commission of small courtesies (as you sweep past your backbenchers in the limo at 2am, "have the grace to stop your car and offer a lift to anyone going your way"), and defeating the innate conservatism of the civil service (for whom he has an appropriately wary admiration), are terribly sensible and wittily presented. The writing in this book was good enough to make me miss my stop on the Northern Line last week, forcing me to endure the misery of waiting for another train to return me to my destination. Tube users know that there is no higher compliment.
But entertaining though he may be, Gerald is no Pollyanna. He is quite prepared to recommend courses of action which - while effective - are not pretty. Here, for instance, is how you deal with questions from your own side:
"If they have tabled a parliamentary question to you, remember that they have done so because they want something out of it; make sure they get it. If need be, ask them what answer they want and, if at all possible, provide it."
And this is his advice on scoring points off the other side in a debate:
"Try to goad some of the more vulnerable Opposition MPs into intervening in your speech, and have ready a weakness in their political record with which to respond to their intervention. You can make sure they will be present by sending them notes telling them that you will be referring to them. They will be too curious not to turn up, and too furious not to intervene. Then you will have them."
Lady Olga Maitland can expect many such notes should Labour win power this spring, and junior ministers seek to make their reputations the easy way. Mr Kaufman's suggestions may help them; just how this serves the cause of parliamentary accountability and good government is not so clear. But then, this is not Jonathon Porritt's guide to being an Ethical Minister.
Good fun the book most certainly is, but could a Labour aspirant like Stephen Byers or Estelle Morris - let alone a John Prescott - read it and emerge ready for the exigencies of power? Kaufman himself acknowledges his debt to Harold Wilson, who "helped me to acquire the most precious commodity for anyone who holds ministerial office: experience". Can there be a substitute?
Perhaps not. But what Kaufman makes clear is that - in practically no time at all - the soft, pudgy, white-fleshed politician will have constructed around him or her (by an establishment created for that purpose), the thick, horny carapace of government. And there will come a day when we will wonder why we ever asked how this or that Shadow could be a minister.
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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