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UK Politics

Mandarinese dashed our hopes of high drama


Clement Attlee’s laconic explanation of why he was sacking a minister summoned to Downing Street in the fond belief that he was about to be promoted, has become a byword for the brutality of government reshuffles. “Not up to it, I’m afraid.”

Unsurprisingly therefore, MPs on the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee were preoccupied, questioning the most powerful man in Whitehall, Sir Jeremy Heywood, about the haphazard way ministerial careers were suddenly advanced or ended.

Indeed they seemed obsessed with how far in advance government changes were planned.

Yet something was missing here: drama. We hoped the MPs would fish more energetically for the inside story. What about the sacking – when Sir Jeremy was still Tony Blair’s Principal Private Secretary — of the then PM’s old mentor Lord Irvine, a scene to compare with Prince Hal’s break with Falstaff?

We were disappointed. But then it’s doubtful that Sir Jeremy would have obliged. His replies were in mandarinese, a language incapable of describing emotion of any kind. Prime Ministers usually expected “a lift” from reshuffles but “they usually don’t make much impact on the polling or credibility of a government.” These days, “individual personalities” of ministers “might marginally change particular priorities” but not much else.

He was unmoved by a suggestion by Graham Allen, the committee’s Labour chairman, that PMs became addicted to reshuffles as consumers to Walker’s Crisps. Or by the Tory Eleanor Laing’s preferred comparison with an “Agatha Christie novel” in which one murder led to another. Or by Labour’s Tristram Hunt, who tried to chip away at Sir Jeremy’ impassiveness. Did departmental business plans play to a “Napoleonic” tendency at No 10 or were they just good management? The latter, came the, by now wholly unsurprising, reply. 

Allen thanked Sir Jeremy for the “privilege” of hearing his testimony. He would be sending him a personal advance copy of its  report on he “Codification” of the “relationship between central and local government.” If Sir Jeremy was having trouble containing his excitement, he made a good job of concealing it.