John Walsh: Cabinet enforcers have to throw their weight around – but not like this

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

You know how it is, that first day in the new job? You're groomed, shaved, combed, deodorised; your suit is creased, your stride confident, your handshake firm and your smile dazzling. You have checked to see that your zip is deployed, and that nothing untoward lurks around your nasal regions. You are out to impress. But somewhere in your innermost heart, there's a nasty memory of your first day at school when you weren't confident at all, the big boys called you an oik, and you couldn't find your all-important peg.

Well, you don't want that feeling to surface now that you're starting an important new position – so you overcompensate by dishing out a few orders. You tell your secretary you like tea with lemon, tell your staff they must hold regular meetings on Tuesdays at noon, and tell the IT department to overhaul the company's intranet. Throwing your weight around in this mildly prattish way feels good. It's a taste of power. You can act on a whim. You can ask for a new desk, or chair – or secretary. You can demand a juke-box, an aquarium, a robot butler.

I know an advertising man who joined a new agency as creative director. On his first day, as they showed him around the minimalist splendour of his office, his colleagues were alarmed by his lack of response. Some crucial spur to imagination was clearly lacking. Eventually he came out with it. "Where," he asked witheringly, "is the dartboard?"

But you shouldn't go too far or you'll end up becoming Liam Byrne, the newly appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office, whose exhaustive instructions to his civil servants (as laid out in an 11-page document called "Working with Liam Byrne") have come to light. Not since Barbra Streisand began demanding metal detectors at all entrances to her concert venues, and Beyoncé Knowles called for rose-scented candles and heavily seasoned chicken wings wherever she performed, has there been such a display of diva-like needs.

Like: "The room should be cleared before I arrive in the morning. I like the papers set out in the office before I get in. The whiteboards should be cleared. If I see things that are not of acceptable quality, I will blame you." Furthermore, Byrne insisted that briefing notes should be in 16-point type and occupy just one sheet of paper. "Never," he sternly counselled, "put anything to me unless you understand it and can explain it to me in 60 seconds." He was firm about his weakness. "I'm addicted to coffee. I like a cappuccino when I come in, an espresso at 3pm and soup at 12.30-1pm."

We are dealing here with a remarkable figure. Mr Byrne is not afraid of seeming to be an obsessive-compulsive wally, a cleanliness freak, a myopic (16-point type?) bully, a blame-hound and a consumer of chocolate soup. To his credit, he does find some fault with himself, confessing: "I am often not very clear, or my writing is illegible. If I'm in the middle of thinking about something, I might ask you to come back" – not that it makes you warm to him much, any more than do his diktats, "Never rely on me looking at text/emails," and "It's your job to keep me to time. It's rude for me to draw meetings to a close. I like 10-minute, then five-minute warnings..."

He reminds me of Harold Skimpole, the self-obsessed parasite in Dickens's Bleak House, who tells everyone, "I am a child, you know!" and claims to have no sense of time, money or involvement in the drudgery of the world, while getting others to deal with his messy life.

You can't help wondering how Barack Obama might begin his term of office at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue. Would he issue bullet-point memorandums to his downstream executives in the West Wing, explaining his need for milkshakes and Oreo biscuits at 4pm daily? Will he give detailed descriptions of how he wants the Oval Office vacuum-cleaned on Fridays? Can you imagine him ordering his minions (as Byrne ordered his briefing advisers) to tell him "not what you think I should know, but what you expect I will get asked"? I would have thought that a responsible politician (or manager) would want to know everything that's going on under his command, as a more urgent priority than having the morning newspapers neatly arranged.

That's the difference between a proper leader, who knows that you inspire your staff by restraint and humility, and a little Hitler, who doesn't. The new cabinet enforcer shows spectacularly how to get it wrong. "Working with Liam Byrne" should be a set text in junior Home Office circles: an awful warning about the primrose path to pomposity.