Sir Jeremy Heywood ponders on the training of ministers as they get churned around the House
The political and constitutional reform committee (No! Keep reading! It gets better, I promise) was meeting to interview the cabinet secretary. I and my colleagues lurked outside the room in Portcullis House. Something was missing. A glance at the guide showed us what it was – the John Bratby portrait of Sir Cyril Smith.
Yes, like Trotsky in the May Day parade, and Jimmy Savile in Scarborough, the late Sir Cyril has become an unperson. It is as if he never existed. All that is left is an old booklet which tells you where he used to be.
And, by pleasing irony, his disappearance coincides with a new exhibition celebrating the life of Lloyd George, who was also a scamp, but at least it was grown women. And bribes.
In the room Sir Jeremy Heywood, said secretary and grandest of all grandees, a great plump Jaffa among the mandarins, was – at first – having a fairly easy time of it. At least it was easier than on Monday when another committee accused him of being hopeless at investigating Andrew Mitchell and Gategate. But none of it mattered, because it was clear that he wasn’t going to say anything important at all.
The committee is investigating ministerial reshuffles. It thinks they could be handled better. Sir Jeremy thinks they are just fine and dandy. Indeed, apart from a few possible minor changes, everything in Heywoodworld is tickety-boo. Asked what things were like at No 10 when a reshuffle happened, he said that it was all a bit demanding. You needed more people on the switchboard. “And you have to be careful that you don’t appoint someone to a job that hasn’t yet become vacant.”
It takes a Rolls-Royce brain to spot that one. He did agree that there might be something to be said for training ministers, rather than just throwing them into the ministry and hoping they could swim.
And he did think it was a little unfair that ministers had not the faintest idea how they were doing until reshuffle day, when they might be promoted or, alternatively, sacked.
The MPs tried to get some kind of commitment. They failed. The chairman, Graham Allen, indulged in a bit of product placement. He thought that some prime ministers became addicted to reshuffles. “It’s like Walker’s crisps: once you’ve had one you need another one, till you’ve finished the whole packet.”
It did sound like a plug. At least he didn’t add “especially king prawn flavour from the exciting new ‘extra crunchy’ range!” But then Eleanor Laing said that reshuffles were actually rather like Agatha Christie plots. “First you have one murder, then that leads to another, and you have to have another … ” Or as Harry Hill says: “The trouble with heroin is it’s very moreish.”
Paul Flynn, who has a jolly beard and a nice smile, went on the attack. It must be like being assailed by one of Santa’s elves. He accused Sir Jeremy of “spewing verbal ectoplasm into the room”. How unfair! Sir Jeremy would never spew anything. Instead he unrolls the verbal ectoplasm like Osborne & Little’s finest wallpaper, in front of a wealthy client who has no idea he’s being ripped off.