Sketch: No votes, but lots of power

Spare a thought for those poor unelected ministers, who didn’t even have to bother winning over a constituency to enter the halls of power.

By Alex Stevenson

Three of these unfortunate souls were up before the public administration select committee, one of the more eccentrically manned of the Commons committees, this morning. They were all peers, having been ennobled to enter government. And they all, in their own way, had little gripes with executive authority.

Alan West, the security minister and former naval chief, appeared to be a tad concerned by the big pay cut which followed his profitable post-navel 14 months in the private sector. “I’d had a nice break earning lots of money and not having worked too hard, which was lots of fun,” he remembered. Not that he was interested in the cash – he has a family to support, of course.

Then there was Ara Darzi, the former health minister who was handed the minor task of reforming the NHS. “No one took me to the side to say what it means to be a minister,” he sniffed, with the air of an insurance fraud victim. For transport secretary Andrew Adonis it was the terrible media exposure which came as the biggest surprise. “I hadn’t realised you become public property.” As the acerbic Charles Walker observed, it must be tough carrying the “awesome burden” of power.

Even having those annoying four letters before your name can be a pain. All three appeared happy to get rid of their ennobled status. Why do they even have to bother with this “peerage nonsense” (Walker again) in the first place? Can’t they just be ordinary members of the government? This idea, Darzi said, was “hugely” attractive. Adonis agreed, although he was doubtful the Commons would buy it. “I think it would take a huge effort to bring about a change,” he worried.

Ex-ministers, having done their stint, seem to feel there is no need contributing to society. “I’ve done my bit,” Darzi added, explaining that he hadn’t been back into the chamber of the Lords once since quitting. West appeared to like the pomp and ceremony, but wasn’t sure about remaining politically active. “You talk about legislating for life. I don’t intend doing political work constantly… but I will of course be in the Lords.”

So why bother at all with what committee chairman Tony Wright called the minister’s “grinding work”? One answer appeared to loom above all others: power. Adonis was all too keen to underline this as he defended his past life as a special advisor in No 10. That, he said, was “a kind of apprenticeship for being a minister”. Perhaps because he had the ears of those in the know? As schools minister Wright reminded him, David Blunkett wanted to know “what is the bloody point of my being here?” with Adonis whispering in Tony Blair’s ear. The secretary of state politely pointed out he wasn’t in charge then. “The whole part of being an adviser is you advise,” Wright gently pointed out.

The step up for Adonis, perhaps, was all too easy. Darzai recalled his conversation with Brown. “I asked the prime minister whether I should be an adviser,” he remembered. “He said… you need to be a minister to make things happen. And, in retrospect, I couldn’t agree more.”

West agreed. However much of a drag all those red boxes might be, there are at least mental benefits to being in power. Getting things done must pall after a while, but at least the old cerebellum gets a decent work out. The mentally alert Lord West declared: “It’s like an A-level a day! It’s been very good for my brain, I find I can learn poetry again now.”