Help! We never knew governing would take so much time

Our 'knackered' New Labour ministers confide their woes to Colin Brown
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TWO ministers were travelling to London on the train last Monday preparing for another week at the Westminster treadmill, when one of them asked: "How do you feel when you wake up?"

His colleague was surprised by the question, but answered: "Knackered."

"That's exactly how I feel," said the other minister.

The two are middle ranking ministers in the Blair Government - young, dynamic, and not given to fainting fits at the thought of hard work. But the most Blairite of ministers are beginning to wilt under the strain of government.

The strain is also beginning to show in the Prime Minister. The first anniversary film of Tony Blair, even after staying up all night to celebrate the 1 May victory, showed a sharp contrast with the dark rings under the Blair eyes a year on. "Tony's knackered. We're all knackered," confided the minister. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, appears tired to other ministers and the rings under John Prescott's eyes seem to have got a little darker.

They are not complaining about the burden of office, but they are concerned that the quality of government will inevitably go down, as their reserves dry up. They are appalled at the sheer volume of material that crosses their desks. "It's a crazy way to run government," he added.

Some ministers have had private discussions about how they can streamline the business of government to reduce the workload but they see no easy solutions. One minister has told his officials not to present him with any decisions for spending approval of less than pounds 15,000. Others have discussed how they can take more time off with their families.

Westminster has long been a graveyard for ministerial marriages, but the strain of bringing up a young family at long distance is beginning to tell. The Prime Minister's own aides have informally sounded out ministers on how they and their families are coping.

Clare Short surprised colleagues by telling her office that for one weekend she would be out of contact. The minister for international development was making up for lost time by having a family weekend with her recently- rediscovered adult son.

Some of her colleagues have taken to similar tactics at weekends, in order to preserve family life. One minister with a young family in the North insists on keeping Saturday and Sunday for his family; the answerphone is permanently on, and rarely answered.

"I have to go up to the constituency surgery on Fridays. It's tempting to say I'll give it a miss, but it's important to keep in touch. That means I can get to see the family at the weekend as well. I've thought about bringing them down to London to live, but there is a downside to that, so we see each other just at weekends."

Being in Opposition was hectic, but it never prepared the young ministers for office and the weight of paperwork that has to be dealt with: the numbers of written Commons answers that have to be read and approved has been steadily rising; in spite of the shorter sittings of the Commons, junior ministers have to be around late at at night to answer adjournment debates; there are ministerial committees to attend; and visits to go on. And then there are the decisions to take.

Executives in the modern business world are being told that being the last to switch off the office lights does not mean you are working hard. It could mean that while your colleagues are relaxing in the pub, you are inefficient and too overstressed to cope properly.

The executives of Cool Britannia PLC feel in need of a business studies adviser who can tell them how to cut down the volume of work, but they are not hopeful. "There's only so much we can reduce, because there is the question of accountability. We have to be accountable to the public, and that means a lot of paperwork. There may be a better way, but we haven't found it yet."