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

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Sales, London

£70 - 95K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Milton Keynes

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Bristol

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Birmingham

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prostitutes face a high risk of contracting HIV, yet they are offered little help from the Government  

Want to rid the world of HIV? Then you can start by decriminalising prostitution

Pamela Das
 

Are we politely looking the other way when it comes to Kate, the ever-shrinking Duchess?

Grace Dent
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game