Yes Minister, you’ll pick it up as you go along

What makes a good government minister? Well, it’s not on the job training because it doesn’t exist, according to Nick Boles, Planning Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), in discussion with Peter Riddell at an Institute for Government event I attended yesterday afternoon.

After nine months delivering some of the most contentious policy changes a Conservative Minister can be involved with – he is regularly accused of seeking to challenge ‘sacrosanct’ Green Belt policy in order to build more houses – the founder of Policy Exchange and former Chief of Staff to Boris Johnson offered a fascinating insight into his government role. He also deftly demonstrated the skills required to survive and thrive in British politics when fielding some loaded questions from journalists at the end of the session.

So, what has Boles’ experience been to-date? As a successful entrepreneur, Boles drew interesting comparisons between the worlds of business and politics. A track record and personal passion in the area for which one holds ministerial responsibility is immensely helpful – he cited Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith as examples, but not absolutely necessary – Theresa May had no previous experience and yet has proven a formidable Home Secretary.

Feedback from peers and superiors is limited – ‘the less I hear from Number 10 the better; they only get in touch when they’re worried’. However, the much maligned SpAds provide an invaluable sounding board and are often excellent at seeing how new ideas might play out within the Department, within government and, critically within the Party, in the media and amongst the electorate.

The Planning Minister was extremely complimentary to his team of Civil Servants, whose professionalism, drive and support have made him question the widely held view amongst many fellow Conservatives that they are simply there to ‘frustrate’. However, he was scathing of the Civil Service as a system, which he described as antediluvian in practice.

And what of working with his coalition partners? Boles was effusive in his praise of fellow Minister Don Foster, although he acknowledged that the work they are doing together on Neighbourhood Planning is based on an area where Conservative and Liberal Democrat ideology is very similar. Life at DECC might not be quite so harmonious…

Dealing effectively with the media and understanding the increasingly important role of social media is something Boles is acutely aware of, having had several brushes with the press over the years. He ruefully acknowledged that the spoof Twitter account @GeneralBoles ‘knows more about me than I do!’ However, he clearly demonstrated his media savvy when he batted back a question from a Daily Telegraph journalist that seemed clearly calculated to generate an ‘End of the Green Belt is Nigh’ headline.

So, what is the secret to success? Here Boles’ business background really came to the fore – know what you want to deliver, don’t try to do too many different things at once and simplify, simplify, simplify. For instance, he knows that he wants to get more housing built, so this simple aim should inform the decisions he takes. He also said something quite brave – ‘approach your role as if it’s the last job you’ll have in politics – it’s impossible to focus on doing your job well if you’re distracted by your political share price.’

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