Terence Blacker: Our poor, unloved leaders need that 'cuddle factor'

No politician is entirely sane. The more senior a minister becomes, the greater the need for impulse control and emotion management
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There has been a predictable outcry, notably among repressed and emotionally constipated commentators, at the news that life coaches have been employed to mentor government ministers on a daily basis. Senior politicians may be bright and achievement-orientated, the thinking in Whitehall goes, but what about their emotional intelligence? Their empathy skills? Are they truly in touch with themselves?

Hazel Blears, for example, may seem to be in control when appearing on the Today programme but, inside her, there is almost certainly a little Hazel, acting tough in the playground because she is afraid that the big boys and girls might laugh at her. It is to give Hazel and her colleagues the opportunity to unclench, to be given what experts call the "cuddle factor", that the new initiative has been launched.

"A lot of them have a trusted mentor and adviser, a consultant they feel safe and comfortable with, to whom they can download stuff," a coach from a consultancy used at the Department of Health recently told The Sunday Times.

But what stuff exactly gets downloaded by ministers? I spoke to a life coach from another team of consultants working in Westminster to get a clearer picture.

"Miss Jones, you are a life coach to the Government, I believe.'

"It's Dr Jones, actually, although my ministers, or "special friends" as I call them, know me as Sarah, Sarah-Jane or Sally - my name depends on who I'm seeing. A very senior minister I'll simply call 'John P' likes to call me Sharon for some reason."

"How does being a 'special friend' to ministers work?"

"We sit in on meetings with them and, when everyone has gone, we'll say things like, 'That was really great, Patricia H - very strong yet empathic. One thing, though - I noticed that now and then you moved into school-prefect, self-protection mode. You need to work on your self-actualisation exercises. And Patricia H will have a good old cry, then tidy herself for the next meeting."

"Problems must vary from minister to minister."

"Absolutely. No politician is entirely sane and, in the life-coach lark, it is more or less accepted that the more senior a minister becomes, the greater the need for impulse control and emotion management."

"How do you set about that?"

"It's all about taking ownership of your own problems. I have had to work with Alastair D's obsessive delusion that he had the emotional warmth of a traffic bollard. Once he came to terms with the fact that he was wrong - it wasn't a delusion at all, it was true - he could move on. I talked to him about ways that he could find his way out of what I call 'the forest of dullness'. I brought in a humour coach. Now we're thinking stylists - sometimes a moustache or slightly longer sideburns can completely change a person's self-image."

"What stuff is most frequently downloaded my ministers?"

"Chronic narcissism is a common problem. I've been trying to help Tony B with a conviction that the weather and global warming are not necessarily reflections of his own political career. He still believes that Hurricane Katrina happened to distract the world's press from the positive developments in his relationship with George Bush. He worries that the world might end when he leaves his job."

"Does his neighbour have problems?"

"Tell me about it. Gordon B is a great guy, but he has convinced himself that he is not interesting enough to reach the top. Hanging out with newspaper editors, he has noticed that several of them are musically talented. One has taught himself to play the piano; another sings a moving version of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman". In a desperate attempt to keep up, Gordon B agreed to learn an instrument."

"That must be the concert pianist mentioned in the press."

"Yes, but the piano proved too difficult. These days Gordon B is working on the five-string banjo. He hopes to have his version of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" ready for the party conference. This is off the record, right?"

"As always."