Just answer as best you can, minister

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The Independent Online
THE announcement that cabinet members will have to sit regular ability tests is said to have ministers in an uproar. Many say they work hard enough as it is. Others say secretly that the tests will create artificial divisions. In the words of one of them, if John Selwyn Gummer does better than Mr or Ms X in a test, that would shatter X's confidence for years to come.

The Prime Minister, however, is said to be adamant on this one, and is determined to press ahead with what he sees as the appropriate response to a situation that has been crying out for firm measures. Here, for instance, is part of the proposed English-language test paper.

1. Which of the following leadership-oriented cliches is the most meaninglessly impressive?

a) Determined to press ahead.

b) The appropriate response.

c) Adopt firm measures.

2. Your phone rings and a voice says, 'PM here'; do you assume:

a) John Major has at last remembered to ring you back?

b) A certain radio programme at last wants to interview you?

c) Your secretary is reminding you that the morning has finished and that you can now start the afternoon?

3. Do you think that 'appropriate' means:

a) relevant?

b) something that might get us off the hook for another few months?

c) anything you want it to?

4. Ministers often use images or metaphors such as a 'raft of measures', a 'package of options', or a 'basket of currencies'. Given that rafts are normally associated with shipwrecked people, that packages turn up battered and broken in the post and that the commonest basket is a waste-paper basket, could you suggest some more fruitful and meaningful images?

(NB: The correct answer is NOT: 'No, but I'll get my scriptwriter/researcher/private secretary to come up with some.')

5. When an interviewer asks a question to which a truthful answer will not do, which of the following openings would you use to get you on to the answer that you do have prepared for a vaguely similar question?

a) 'Well, it's not quite as simple as that - you see . . .'

b) 'May I just say this first?'

c) 'That's all very well, but first you have to ask yourself this. . .'

d) 'We have to put this in context by remembering that. . .'

e) 'My private secretary thought you might throw this one at me, and if you did, he thought I might be able to wriggle out of it by quoting statistics from the last Labour government, I've got them somewhere. . . .'

Mr Major is also keen to test ministers on performance. Here are some harder questions from the maths paper.

1. Your department needs another pounds 6bn. But what do you actually ask for?

a) pounds 6bn.

b) pounds 12bn.

c) pounds 12bn plus the BR pension fund, plus whatever has been promised to Virginia Bottomley.

d) A chance to see more of your family.

2. You are landed with a huge legal bill for removing an unwanted prostitute from your basement. What should you do?

a) Send the Treasury the bill.

b) Resign.

c) Ask for pounds 6bn.

d) Say: 'That may well be, but I think we have to put this in context by remembering that. . .'

e) Remind the PM we all have skeletons in our cupboards.

The history test contains questions such as this:

1. For how long after the last Labour government can we blame it for what's happening now?

2. Especially as most voters under 30 can't remember the last Labour government?

3. And when can we start blaming Margaret Thatcher?

4. Especially considering that, already, most voters under 20 can't remember who Margaret Thatcher was?

5. Just who was Jeffrey 'Lord' Archer?

6. If for years we condemned Communism's unrealistic dogma and doctrine, why are we letting Toryism go the same way?

6. Who likes Chinese food?

7. Put another way, if Chris Patten's health gets worse, does anyone fancy a trip to Hong Kong?

Etc, etc.

That Mr Major is serious about these tests is in no doubt. What is in doubt is whether ministers are capable of taking tests. As their whole existence depends on being able to dodge questions, they are thought incapable of answering straight. Indeed, some think ministers who do answer straight will be deemed incapable of ministerial office and given the bullet pronto.