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28 June 2007

Waiting for the call

Veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, who wrote the definitive guide on being a minister, recalls what i

By Gerald Kaufman

It was even worse in the pre-mobile-phones era. In those days, anyone hoping to get a ministerial offer from No 10 – which meant almost all the Parliamentary Labour Party – felt it essential to stick close to a telephone in case the crucial call might be missed. There was the difficult choice of whether to stay at home, with one hand lightly on the receiver, or hurry to the House of Commons and stick it out there, waiting for that painfully awaited summons.

Of course, if a call does come through, the recipient has to know whether to trust it. When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, one MP offered junior office by phone thought that the person at the other end was a malicious back-bench colleague imitating Wilson’s voice, and put the phone down on him. Happily, Wilson persisted, and the man believed the offer and accepted the job.

Some Ministers can be very idiosyncratic. When Douglas Jay was sacked as President of the Board of Trade, he phoned the Prime Minister the next day and told the Prime Minister that he had thought matters over and decided that he preferred to stay in the job. That took a little sorting out, as did Norman Buchan’s view that, while he accepted being sacked, he intended to retain his ministerial room in the House of Commons.

For those who do get a genuine call from No 10, with a genuine offer, and want to think that offer over, the ideal thinking-over time would be about two minutes. After that, the Prime Minister might do some thinking-over himself. Nor does it do for anyone, unless extremely powerful, to ask for an appointment other than the one being stipulated. There are far more back-benchers ready to accept anything – and I really do mean anything whatsoever, including junior whip, unpaid – for someone no more powerful but, on this occasion at any rate, a heck of a lot more lucky, to start cavilling.

When I worked for Wilson, I was always on hand to advise on ministerial appointments, even when not asked. On one occasion I was in his room in the House of Commons when he was pondering whom to appoint to a junior ministerial vacancy. The name put forward by the senior minister in whose department the appointment needed to be made was of someone deeply disloyal to the PM. I said to Wilson, “Can’t you do better than that?” He riposted. Accusingly, “Well, who, then ?”

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I picked up a copy of Dod’s Parliamentary Companion, sitting conveniently on a nearby desk, rifled through its pages, pointed to a name, and said, “Why not her ?” She got the job, and went on to a long and reasonably distinguished ministerial career. Wilson learned from this. When he decided to appoint to a junior job someone he knew not only I but others in his entourage, would object strongly, he told us nothing about it until this appointment was announced

If this whole process of ministerial appointment sounds humiliating, that is because that is precisely what it is. But during these re-shuffle days, rather more than 300 Labour MPs have been ready, willing, even desperate, to be humiliated.

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