EVER wondered why ministers need to be surrounded by so many special advisers, researchers and general lackeys? Stephen Fry once offered a possible answer in his comedy show QI.
He said: “Some of them you wouldn’t trust to sit the right way on a lavatory, to be honest. That much of their brain is taken up with the processing they’re doing, it’s not surprising that they’re not safe to use the street unattended.”
Fans of QI will know that Fry was actually referring to chess grandmasters whose brains are virtually taken up by processing different moves, but sometimes you could believe it of our leading politicians and ministers of the crown – just with less brain capacity to fill.
Such an occasion happened on Friday with the briefing by an unnamed minister to the Guardian that the UK government and Labour were not serious about stopping an independent Scotland from using the pound. It’s not the first time that a bottle of Chablis has given a journalist a scoop and it won’t be the last, and it underlines why political leaders get so nervous about letting their ministers out unaccompanied by a press officer for a quiet lunch.
But to a certain extent it was inevitable that this sort of briefing would be the Achilles’ heel of the Better Together campaign. The coalition has very tight inner circles focused on various issues and is not the best at keeping its ministers, particularly Tory ones who think they should be in the Cabinet, briefed and on-message.
The nature of coalition has in the past also allowed ministers, such as Vince Cable, to step out of line without sanction, leading to a much more loose-jawed culture.
The inner circle of ministers here are David Cameron, George Osborne, Danny Alexander, Alistair Carmichael and David Mundell, with Iain Duncan Smith and Vince Cable as senior outriders. What happened last week was perhaps just the latest example of a minister who is outside the inner circle on Scotland, thinking he knows better and speaking out of turn.
Previously we have had threats to keep hold of Faslane in the event of independence, and a Yes vote might not mean Yes. All of which an embarrassed Downing Street, Scotland Office and Treasury have had to deny.
A bit like Fry’s observation on grandmasters, there is a sense that they are so full of their own issues that you cannot quite trust them to compute the consequences of what they say on other issues when let out on their own.
The Nationalists of course have taken the anonymous briefing as proof that the government’s refusal to entertain a currency union is a bluff. Anybody who really believes that though is taking a huge gamble.