Brian Wilson: Sweeping clean can be a dirty game

The bunting was out as David Cameron invited some new faces to join the Cabinet

The bunting was out as David Cameron invited some new faces to join the Cabinet

THE prolonged sideshow that has become the Westminster Cabinet reshuffle results in too many casualties.

As they alighted from their ministerial cars yesterday, members of David Cameron’s government would have been glancing into the eyes of their drivers in search of signs. Famously, government drivers know the fate of fallen ministers before the impending victims themselves.

Reshuffles are miserable events for those whose careers live or die by them. One minute, the Honourable Member is master of all he surveys, enjoying the glamour of a ministerial engagement in Basingstoke with a great future still to dream of. Then the phone rings, the colour drains and it is over with no right of appeal. “Sorry, old chap, but I have to make way for the class of 2010”… “But I’m only 42, Prime Minister”. Click.

If it was that clinical it would be kinder, but it never is. Whoever is in office, reshuffles are conducted as slow motion ceremonies, speculated upon for weeks and executed as public spectacles. They provide seasonal entertainment for the political village which thrives on gossip and malice.

I write from considerable experience of such events in the last Labour government and I hated them, even though their outcomes treated me pretty kindly. There is nothing like the prospect of a reshuffle to draw the political snakes – who exist in all parties – from the long grass. That is another way of describing “off the record briefings”, a practice which confirms the old maxim that one’s political opponents are opposite and enemies behind. The willingness of some journalists to acquiesce in this activity has always puzzled me.

If Mr A phones up to say that his Ministerial colleague Mr B is useless and is likely to get the boot in the impending reshuffle, then there is certainly a story – ie the perfidy of Mr A. But it never plays that way. If just once, the briefer became the story rather than the briefed-against, then the boil would be lanced. If that had happened early in the life of the Labour government, a lot of trouble would have been saved. My first experience of a reshuffle was in 1998. I had been education and industry minister in the Scottish Office which was a great job, all the more so because it allowed me to do things I had been talking and writing about for decades. In the preceding weeks, predictions of my demise started to crop up. By the time the day finally dawned, I was sick of the whole thing and adjourned to the golf course to await contact through the tentacles of the Downing Street switchboard. When it came, the news was startling to the point of being life-changing. I had indeed been extricated from the Scottish Office but someone in the system had looked after my interests rather well and I was to become UK Trade Minister – a role which had never crossed my mind nor for which I had any particular qualification.

This meant that I was, within days, on a plane to Hanoi where a group of British businessmen awaited, with contracts worth billions of pounds at stake. Some of them had been there for years, since Vietnam is not a place for doing business in a hurry. I met my newly-acquired counterpart amidst much ceremony in a grand hall with the businessmen seated in pews to the side, silent observers as their fates were discussed. The thought must have occurred to them, as it certainly did to me, that one wrong word from a guy who was ten minutes in the job could scupper their entire endeavours. Of such are sharp learning curves made.

Anyway, I quickly learned to love the Trade role which corresponded to my preferred brand of politics – it was all about outcomes rather than rhetoric. Everything done overseas translated directly into jobs and prosperity at home. I acquired a healthy respect for the people who spend their lives on planes trying to win work for the businesses and employees who depend on the success of their endeavours.

One episode I had to handle became known as the Banana Wars, a piece of tit-for-tat politics in which the United States took revenge on the EU for its policy of preferential treatment for the poor banana-producing islands of the Caribbean at the expense of the US-owned giants in Latin America.

The World Trade Organisation placed a value on the sanctions that the US was allowed to impose until this practice ended. The Americans drew up an eclectic list of EU products on which they inflicted punitive tariffs. One of these was cashmere knitwear which posed a real threat to the Borders industry.

We eventually headed it off by underwriting the surplus tariffs in order to buy time while the dispute was resolved. It was a great collaborative operation involving the industry, government and local politicians. Party politics played no part.

On another front, one of the great exporting success stories grew out of a crisis in the North Sea oil and gas industry. In the late 1990s, the oil price fell below $10 a barrel. The outlook seemed so bleak that the oil industry, counter-culturally, agreed to participate in a joint task force with government to work together on ensuring a future for the North Sea and companies that had grown up around it.

With help and encouragement from Government and its agencies, hundreds of companies which had depended solely on North Sea activity turned themselves into international players willing to work wherever there was an offshore industry. The oil price duly recovered but in the meantime, adversity had been turned to permanent advantage.

It is on the basis of such experiences that I described trade as “politically neutral” when, last week, I agreed to become a UK business ambassador with a special interest in Scottish exporting at the behest of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, whom I first worked with over the cashmere dispute.

Over a long period, I have dealt with United Kingdom Trade International and Scottish Development International. They work together in harmony and both contribute to the well-being of the Scottish economy. I noticed a letter-writer to yesterday’s edition of The Scotsman complaining that part of my remit is to “emphasise the importance of that united approach”.

I suppose in his ideal world nobody would make that case. I am sorry to disappoint him. Only a fool would pretend that Scottish export businesses gain no benefits from being part of the United Kingdom but if there is a counter-case which maintains that the pluses are outweighed by minuses, then it too should be stated.

That is what is called debate and in a context where tens of thousands of jobs are at stake, debate is surely the least we are entitled to.




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