The Journal of Lynton Charles, Deputy Minister without Portfolio

Tuesday I am just finishing a note to Dr Jack, detailing the political objectives of my proposed Minnesota visit, when M calls from the heart of his barony.

"Lynton, love of my life, it's here! Do come and see! I'm so excited, I've had to have a shower. Drop everything and come over. It's raining, so bring an umbrella. But hurry! A boy wants his best friends around him at a time like this. Bring little Starbuck. Ciao!"

I am mystified at first, but as we put our coats on and hurry down Whitehall, Simon has the explanation to hand. "It's his white paper, Mr. Lynton Charles, sir. Due to be published tomorrow. All the ex-Lubyanka kids are talking about it. Little Tristram says he's like a dog with two . . ."

We arrive at our destination before Starbuck can complete his vulgarism. The atmosphere inside M's capacious office, hung as it is with modern art of a distinctly sexual character, is celebratory. Tristram is there, as is Charlie Leadbeater, who, Starbuck whispers to me, is the brains behind the white paper. Leadbeater has Professor Branestawm specs and the distracted frown of the painfully clever, but his clothes are superb - all Milan. It's a slightly disquieting combination. A couple of other junior ministers, to whom I cannot quite put a name, linger in corners or talk to some rather pretty young aides who drape themselves decoratively (but decisively) over various sculptures and bits of modern furniture.

M himself is behind his large desk. No, not behind it so much as on it, for he is sitting with his stockinged feet and most of his legs stretching over the Swedish expanse of wood, a glass of something pink in his left hand and an unlit cigar in the right. Around him are piles of documents, smelling still of the printing press. As we enter, M looks up and waves towards the heaps.

"Hurrah, Lynton! The fleet's in! Don't look alarmed - I won't touch you with the cigar! Now look at my little baby, my sweet one, my first-born. Read it. Feel it. It's not a note to Neil coyly suggesting X; not a memo to Gordon tentatively recommending Y; not a briefing document for Tony setting out the advantages of Z. It's not setting objectives for the shadow cabinet, or outlining a possible commitment for the manifesto. It smacks as surely of puissance as those did of impotence. This is the real McCoy! A white paper! By me! Telling the world what 'we the government' intend to do. List, oh list, while I tell you how I will advance the enterprise culture, provide packages of support (doesn't the very phrase render Viagra redundant!) and enable rather than direct. Look at my proposal for an Enterprise Fund. Isn't that so very me? Charlie, shall I ask him the big question?"

Branestawm nods vaguely, and returns to a copy of Arena on one of the shelves.

"Now Lynton, when you hear the word 'bankrupt', what do you think? Does your mind's eye paint a picture of rogue businesspersons closing down their fly-by-night operations, leaving behind strings of diddled creditors? Do you visualise serial company closers who flit from disaster to disaster, while still managing somehow to keep the large house, the swimming pool and the kids at Harrow? In short, does the word conjure for you the mournful tones of Mr John Waite, and his 'how do you feel about Mrs Elsie Gronk's life savings' doorstepping of bad men?"

I nod. Those are indeed the images that spring to mind.

"Wrong!" says M delightedly. "Think of bankruptcy as a necessary feature of risk-taking. Regard the bankrupt as the pioneer, the explorer of the business world. We must love the bankrupt, cherish the bankrupt, allow him or her to go bankrupt again and again. Radical thinking, eh?"

I nod again.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition