Blairites learn a lesson

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Day one began like a thousand management training courses: seated around a table in an anonymous room in Oxfordshire, a group of MPs introduced themselves in 30 seconds. Then, to break the ice, each was asked a rather more searching question for a politician: what do other people say about you?

With perhaps only weeks to go before a general election, almost all of Labour's would-be ministers have been through at least one period of intensive training designed to prepare them for government. Most have undergone a two-day session organised by a firm of management consultants at Templeton College in Oxford, complete with lectures, projects and question- and-answer sessions.

As one MP put it: "It was a bit like being back at school, except the accommodation was much nicer and the food was edible."

The two-day Templeton courses, now completed, are just the tip of the iceberg of Labour preparations for government. The Fabian Society has hosted half-day seminars at London University for front-benchers, chaired by Professor Peter Hennessy of London University. And a former senior civil servant, Judith Marquand, has given a paper on how to orientate the civil service away from its Tory-inspired preoccupation with markets and towards a stakeholder approach.

The push to prepare Labour - which has been out of office since 1979 and can boast only a handful of ex-ministers - has been entrusted to Jonathan Powell, a former diplomat who now serves as Mr Blair's chief of staff.

Work has gone on at several levels. For months, shadow Secretaries of State have been given briefings by permanent secretaries. Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, has met Sir Terry Burns, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury. Front-benchers outside the Shadow Cabinet have been allowed to meet more junior officials, too, with detailed sessions on policy areas. This type of contact extends to advisers: for example, Ed Balls, economic adviser to Mr Brown, has had close links with the Treasury and Bank of England.

For the civil service there is a benefit in this contact too. Most officials have spent much of their careers under a Conservative government and must have some anxieties over how the system will adapt to Labour. Some officials believe that Labour has under-estimated just how different it will be if it makes it into government.

And the need for broader preparatory work, among the men and women who expect to serve as ministerial foot-soldiers, was underlined by one shadow minister in an unexpected flash of honesty last week. "Look," he said, "none of us has the first sodding idea about what government means, whether any of us will be any good at it, or even what being good at it means.

"In many respects the skills required in opposition are diametrically opposite to the skills needed in government. Some of my colleagues have made a career out of being a conduit for leaks from the civil service to the press. That's hardly going to be much good in government."