IFG - Former ministers reveal experiences of Johnson, Brown and Blair governments

From: Think Tanks
Published: Wed May 10 2023

George Eustice, Hilary Benn, Douglas Alexander and Helen Liddell give candid interviews about their time as ministers.

George Eustice, Hilary Benn, Douglas Alexander and Helen Liddell have given candid interviews about their time as ministers for former Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson and former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The interviews, which include George Eustice's insights into what civil servants fear about ministers and Douglas Alexander's criticisms of ministers who lie on “sun loungers”, are published today as part of the Institute for Government's Ministers Reflect series - and are published alongside a new IfG paper - Ministers Reflect: what ministers say about getting things done in government - which rounds up key lessons from the Ministers Reflect archive.

In the interviews:  

  • Former environment secretary George Eustice says he endlessly came up against the “ideological stance” of his colleagues.
  • George Eustice reveals what civil servants “fear” from ministers.
  • Former environment secretary Hilary Benn says ministers should build an “honest” relationship with civil servants.
  • Hilary Benn warns of the dangers of governments getting “tired”.
  • Former international development secretary Douglas Alexander admits that ministers “obsessively” watch television during reshuffles.
  • Douglas Alexander criticises ministers who lie on “sun loungers” when they should be in their departments.
  • Former Scotland secretary Baroness Liddell says it was “counterproductive” to have secretaries of state for the devolved nations.
  • Baroness Liddell says people in government were “nervous about taking Scotland on”.

Highlights include:

George Eustice on dealing with “ideological” colleagues: “[I was] endlessly coming up against what could best be described as a rather ideological stance, which just held that we should just liberalise per se.” 

George Eustice on why civil servants fear ministers: “[The civil service] fear what might happen if a minister is set loose on an issue and, as they would see it, jumps to conclusions without being guided down a particular funnel.”

Hilary Benn on civil servants being honest: “Having a relationship with civil servants in which they can honestly express what they think is really important, and it's most important when you disagree with them.”

Hilary Benn on the risk of governments getting tired: “All governments get tired. I cite the current government as my principal exhibit... And you run out of steam a bit - there's a huge difference from coming in as a minister in a new government, with a manifesto.”

Douglas Alexander on reshuffles: “The standard public mantra is that the work of government continues during a reshuffle; in my experience, ministers are obsessively watching the television in their departments, trying to figure out what's happening.”

Douglas Alexander criticises ministers who don't return to their desks during crises: “When I read about other secretaries of state lying on sun loungers when they should be leading major international responses, I am totally incredulous, because it was for me instinctive and immediate that my responsibility was to be back where the department was.”

Baroness Liddell on “counterproductive” secretaries of state: “It was counterproductive to have the secretary of state for Scotland, the secretary of state for Wales and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland; we should have had a secretary of state for the devolved areas.”

Baroness Liddell on Scotland: “People seemed to be nervous about taking Scotland on. They seemed to back off it.”

Notes to editors

  • The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  • For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact press@instituteforgovernment.org.uk / 0785 031 3791.
Company: Think Tanks

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