Skip to main content

Inside politics

“We will definitely think about that, Minister, and come back to you”

Stewart arriving at a cabinet meeting in 2019. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty

When I was first made a government minister, says Rory Stewart in his new book Politics on the Edge, I couldn’t have been more excited. Driven straight from No 10 to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I was greeted at the front door by five civil servants. “Welcome, Minister,” they said, before ushering me to the lift marked “Ministers Only”. On the big table in my luxurious office was my “red box” – the cherry-coloured, lead-lined briefcase stuffed with briefing notes. Eager to get started, I asked the civil servants what the priorities should be. “You are the experts,” I said. “What would you like to change?” In a tone that “oozed restrained competence”, the most senior member of the group replied: “We will definitely think about that, Minister, and come back to you.”

Even more disappointing was my first meeting with my new boss, Liz Truss. She began by asking for a 10-point plan for the national parks, which I told her I’d have ready in four weeks. “You have three days, Rory,” she replied, with “such exaggerated firmness” I wondered if she was joking. “We need to get it into the Telegraph on Friday.” It would be easy, she said. “Make it eight points, if you can’t find 10. But 10 is better.” Next, she told me to cut my part of the department by 25%. I stared at her. “Don’t worry, Rory,” she said. “I have a mentor who is a very successful businessman who says all businesses can always be cut by 20%. I want 20% staff cuts too.” It began to dawn on me why David Cameron was so “mesmerised” by Truss. “Her genius lay in exaggerated simplicity.” Governing, for her, was not about critical thinking, or “truth and reason”. It was just “partisanship and slogans”. And if she worried about the consequences of that simple-minded approach, “she didn’t reveal it”.

Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart is available to buy here.