From ministerial Mondeo to back bench

THE Mail on Sunday have today published a slightly edited version of an article they commissioned from me on the subject of how a minister is sacked and adjusts to his new life, a subject I feel eminently qualified to discuss. 

You can’t read MoS’s online version (in the Review section) without paying to register on its site, apparently, but below is my original draft; the “director’s cut”, if you will:

THE CLASSIC Motown song, “This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers, is the default ringtone on my phone, and at precisely 7.50 pm it started to play as “number withheld” appeared on the display. Having just put my two young sons to bed, I was getting changed out of my suit in the spare bedroom. Still in a state of partial undress, I answered the call.

“This is the Number 10 switchboard. Can you hold for the prime minister?”

Well, there aren’t too many answers to that question, are there? I walked downstairs clutching the phone to my ear and went into the kitchen where my wife, Carolyn, was making a late dinner. “Number 10,” I mouthed silently at her, and she immediately switched off the blaring radio.

The received wisdom about reshuffles is that if you’re going to get sacked, it’s done early on in the day. Having heard nothing so far, I was pretty confident that a call this late in the day would surely mean promotion. I knew I had done a good job at transport. I also knew that Minister of State in that department was now vacant. Or immigration, perhaps? Europe even?

And with such optimistic expectancy did I take the call from the prime minister. The conversation was brief: he was bringing new people into the government, and that meant some people would have to leave. My heart sank, my stomach lurched and I made a “thumbs-down” gesture to Carolyn, who mouthed a word that ladies shouldn’t really utter.

Later on, I would think of clever retorts and witty one-liners, such as “Oh, bloody hell, Gordon!” But at the time I was so shell-shocked, I merely acquiesced in his request that I “step aside” for the greater good of the government. I’m not entirely sure but I may even have said “Thanks for calling…”

That same morning a courier had delivered a ministerial red box, heavy with unsigned letters and policy submissions for my approval. Suddenly, in the space of a single telephone conversation, I had been transformed from a minister of the crown to a back bench MP with no authority even to open the box, let alone read any of its contents.

Carolyn’s sense of irony never deserts her, and that evening she insisted we crack open a bottle of Champagne.

Until then, I had been in government, in one role or another, for five years. Before becoming a minister, I had been parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Northern Ireland minister John Spellar (2003-2005), then PPS to health secretary Patricia Hewitt (2005-2006). In September 2006, I turned down an invitation from fellow back benchers to sign a letter requesting that Tony Blair resign as prime minister. A minister who did add his name was forced to resign as a result, and the ensuing mini-reshuffle brought me into the government as a minister at the Department for Transport (DfT).

To this day I have never regretted refusing to sign that letter; and being appointed as a minister by Tony Blair remains the proudest moment of my political life.

As a minister, at least while Parliament was sitting, I would leave my Glasgow home at 6.30 am on a Monday in order to catch the 7.10 am train to Euston. The first silver lining of my sacking became apparent on the following Monday when I caught the 3.10 pm train after spending a relaxed morning and afternoon with Carolyn and the boys.

There had been no vote in the Commons that evening, but I wanted to pop in on the Strangers’ bar anyway to see friends and colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t seen since the start of the recess. The sympathy at what had happened was encouraging and touching, as was the invariable expression of indignation at the unfairness of it. I was determined to be philosophical: these things have happened before and they will happen again.

But when it came to going home time, I received another shock to the system: I had no ministerial car to drop me at my flat. It had been two years since I had had to make my own way home; would I know the way by myself? Should I phone my old driver, Bob, and ask him for directions?

But the Harrises are nothing if not resourceful and I managed to get safely home. But the next morning, emerging from the flat after an unaccustomed long lie, I instinctively looked round for the familiar brown Mondeo. My heart sank when I realised it was never going to be there again.

It’s not a particularly long walk into the Commons from where I live in Pimlico, and I found myself enjoying the “fresh” air of central London as I contemplated the day ahead. A normal day at the Department for Transport (DfT) would have started with breakfast at the Commons followed by back-to-back meetings at Great Minster House, the odd set-piece speech somewhere in London or even a ministerial visit outside London. From first meeting to last vote would regularly be about 13 or 14 hours. Today I didn’t even have to look at my diary to see what lay ahead of me now: breakfast, office time, meeting with my researcher, office time, lunch with blogger Iain Dale, coffee with a journalist, office time…

Sometime soon I will get back into a back bench routine, but in the immediate aftermath of being sacked, it’s hard to adjust to a regime where your time isn’t ruthlessly carved up by a small army of efficient civil servants.

I will miss that “small army” immensely. I had four full-time members of my ministerial private office. I could also rely on a much bigger army of DfT officials whose advice and knowledge was impressive and daunting.

My former private secretary, Rachel, phoned me to discuss tying up “loose ends”. I didn’t fancy going back into the department, at least not yet. So she met me in Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament and I reluctantly handed over the keys to my red box and my departmental security pass. I returned to my office in the upper committee corridor divested of the final vestiges of ministerial authority.

The most common theory put forward for my sacking is, inevitably, my blog, And another thing... In some ways, this is comforting: no-one really believes I was bad at my job so there must be another reason, and the blog is a prime suspect, especially after the whole “Why is everyone so bloody miserable?” debacle.

I started it in March this year because I was concerned that right wing blogs like Iain Dale’s and Guido Fawkes’s were dominating the market, and I felt there weren’t enough Labour voices out there.

Few people were even aware I wrote a blog until “Why is everyone so bloody miserable” was published in June. What started off as a fairly thoughtful piece about the difficulty of achieving happiness in a material world was twisted by a Conservative front bencher to try to make it look like I was belittling people’s real difficulties in coping with the current economic climate. I found myself having to defend and explain what I had written to hostile journalists and broadcasters. It was a sharp reminder that, even if the public aren’t reading what ministers blog, journalists and political opponents are.

Even then, I received no criticism from No. 10; my boss at the time, Ruth Kelly, simply asked how I was coping with the media scrum.

And you can go over my posts with a fine tooth comb and you won’t find anything there that’s off-message or critical of government policy.

But I hope the blog wasn’t the reason for my sacking. I wouldn’t like to think that any minister who makes a serious attempt to have a dialogue with voters, who tries to communicate Labour’s agenda to the public and who (God help us) makes jokes at his own expense is immediately regarded as a loose canon. Surely voters prefer their politicians to sound as if they’re at least familiar with the planet Earth? And what’s more off-putting than a minister who sounds as if he’s reciting a Labour Party press release he’s memorised an hour earlier?

I’m not naïve; I know that there are some senior politicians who don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate for a minister to write about what his favourite karaoke performances are (“Home” by Michael Bublé and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors), or who he thinks will win The X-Factor (Austin), or to write a review of the entire fourth season of Doctor Who (best yet – better to come).

And I’m sure not everyone in the Labour Party thinks I should publish comments from readers of my blog which are critical of me, the government or the party.

But I genuinely believe that blogs can and will be an important part of the political debate in this country in the future. And I happen to think that ministers, as well as ordinary party members, should be saying something interesting and challenging and – yes – human to the increasing numbers who are logging on to read them.

I like to think And another thing… would have continued even if I had remained in government; it will certainly continue now that I’m not. Whether people will want to read it now that it’s written by a back bencher, and not a minister, is another matter.

But if it wasn’t the blog, and it wasn’t incompetence, then what? Politics?

The fact is, I don’t know. No-one is ever told.

And sometimes, when the music stops, there just isn’t a chair for you. It can be as simple as that and you just have to accept it.




Filed under Blogging, Department for Transport, Family life, Gordon Brown, Government, Media, Parliament, Politics

28 responses to “From ministerial Mondeo to back bench

  1. Tom, I really hope your blog isn’t the reason for your sacking. You have made the internal workings of a Government famed for secrecy both presentable and palatable for ordinary people. As an activist for a party which would rather your party wasn’t in Government at all, it would be nonetheless refreshing to see you cruising about in a brown mondeo again.

  2. Rapunzel

    Of course we’ll keep reading your blog, even though you are no longer a minister. It’ll still be varied, quirky, self-deprecating, human and thought provoking, won’t it? Best of all, it’ll keep getting up the noses of your opponents. Although I do think the comments on your blog are infinitely more civilised and well argued than on many others. That stems, I suspect, from the fact that you are held in great affection.

  3. Johnny Norfolk

    Tom. That was very interesting and to some extent I know how you feel. When I retired out went my company car, but worse still my euro fuel card. I could fill the car at virtually any petrol station in Europe. I was based in Germany for 2 years and travelled all over to Italy, Spain, Denamark etc. When you go by car and are on your own you learn so much about the culture of the countries. Thats when I realised how good Britain is/was.

    But I would not go back even if I now have to pay for my car and fuel. We just need to be rid of the Labour government and have an efficent government that knows money does not grow on trees and can run things. i see us becomming more and more controlleed by the state, thats how the rest of Europe is and we are going the same way slowly but surely. freedom is everything.

  4. esthersassaman

    Hi Tom, I disagree with you on quite a lot politically but I agree completely with your statement on blogging. Political blogs, particularly the franker ones, are an essential insight into government, and I believe they are an extremely effective tool for politicians communicating with the public – and vice versa. I’ll keep reading your blog, backbencher or no!

  5. richard

    “I knew I had done a good job at transport…”

    Maybe Gordon believed the press cutting he got from Private Eye (you know, the one that described you as being clueless when it came to matters regarding the rail network).

  6. Dyb

    Whilst I disagree politically with you, Tom, and would vote against you in an General Election tomorrow, I think your blog gives some light on the bizarre machinations of politics. Especially this post..

    Your lack of bitterness, and also your vista of the life of a backbench MP (coffee and meetings!) is interesting and shows how the less assiduous MPs find time to work in the city or law as well as completing their backbench duties.

  7. Madasafish

    You work for a PM who has as much milk of human kindness as a Number 10 bus.

    Get over it and move on is my advice..otherwise you will grow bitter and we will get fed up.
    Been there, know what it’s like (horrible),feel for you BUT move on.

  8. Auntie Flo'

    Good post, Tom. You’re not a bad writer, perhaps you should write a book.

    I still think you were sacked because you and your blog became too popular. Somebody up there who is very unpopular got a wee bit green eyed and nervous.

  9. Zim Flyer

    Tom you were the best ambassador for Labour out there and I was gutted when I heard they had “released” you. Especially when I think of people like Alistair Darling’s continual survival especially after what he did to Light Rail in this country.

    Their loss mate and I’m sure you will get another job within the party, sadly for you it may well be a Shadow post in the future.

    Keep plugging away, you have a lot of good things to say and it’s a pleasure to read your blog and your opinions.

  10. If it was the blog that would be pretty stupid because the sensible thing would have been for one of the whips to drop in on you & say “I really enjoy your blog Tom but don’t you think….”

    On the other hand if it wasn’t then somebody has to say why because all other bloggers & potentials are going to be frightened off .

    I am a classic liberal, which puts me economicaly closer to the Tories than any other main party but far from them (& far from approving Labour’s record) on things like bombing people (& apparently far from all parties in my disapproval of Ludditism). For that reason I think it important that the blogsphere not be left to the Conservatives. If Downing St decide it should be, or give the impression they do, then it will be to the long term damage of your party.

  11. You want to know what I think? I think you were sacked because you refused to sign that letter in September ’06. If you don’t believe me, look at what happened in the reshuffle to some of those who did sign it.

  12. Auntie Flo'

    Are you ever tempted to go to church, Tom, or have you given it up for ever? I don’t attend services now, but I still have strong faith and am in and out of churches and up and down church towers whenever I have free time – I’m a part-time local historian with a special interest in church history and architecture.

  13. I only realised how good you you were at the light rail fringe meeting in Manchester. Sacked? You should have been given Ruth Kelly’s job!

  14. John M.

    I worry that the political classes are becoming too isolated from the rest of us. That’s why I appreciate your blog; it humanises at least one politician and gives Labour a sane and interesting voice in the blogosphere.

    I say that, of course, as that most loathsome of creatures, a lifelong Tory.

  15. Mineworker

    Hmmm. Politics is a strange old game, isn’t it? Despite the general call for more political transparency, I think I’d rather not know the minutae of the political business which goes on behind closed doors. Some things are better handled without an audience.

    I’ve read the article in the Mail on Sunday today and now I’ve read your blog, which says more about you as a person than it says about you as a politician. And that’s the way it should be.

    I’m surprised you don’t know the reason why you were asked to stand down as a minister; you will surely discover this shortly. Was it related to your blog you ask. Well, writing a blog is a visible expression of a person’s individuality and this is always going to be a source of tension when the blogger is a member of a political party. All mature political parties work through the principle of collective responsibility and blogs can threaten this. Being a back bencher will probably give you greater freedom to express your views without censure!

  16. ” one really believes I was bad at my job”

    But what is the job of a transport minister? How do you define ‘bad’ and ‘good’?

    Should we hold you responsible for the bonkers things in the ‘Sustainable railways’ white paper – for example the belief that hydrogen fuel cells and biofuel would make electtification redundant in 10-15 years? Should we hold Ruth responsible for reversing that position nine months later?

    Did you realise that the words the civil servants gave you to read had changed through 180 degrees?

    For those of us who have seen ministers come and go over 30 odd years what a minister does is hard to determine at the time. Perhaps the best we can hope for it to echo google – do no harm.

  17. Okay, maybe I should have written: “No-one reallay believes I was bad at my job. Except Roger Ford, obviously.”

  18. Martin Cullip

    Firstly Tom, you should have left the radio on. Your home life, your rules (I know this is a strange concept for Labour but …)

    Secondly, Carolyn sounds superb, definitely worth keeping. (what letter did the word she mouthed start with?) 😉

    … but seriously,

    “I wouldn’t like to think that any minister who makes a serious attempt to have a dialogue with voters, who tries to communicate Labour’s agenda to the public and who (God help us) makes jokes at his own expense is immediately regarded as a loose canon. ”

    I think this is the entire problem for ex-Labour members like me. It’s wrong and is an ominous portent for the future. Labour invented this way of politics and Dave is following the example.

    I thought I hated Thatcher until I saw how more elevated the threat to all of us New Labour have turned out to be. The scary bit is that there doesn’t seem any way back to honest politics anymore.

  19. Martin Cullip

    Mineworker, I’m staggered!

    “Despite the general call for more political transparency, I think I’d rather not know the minutae of the political business which goes on behind closed doors. Some things are better handled without an audience.”

    Your trust is far in excess of anything that I could ever envisage for myself! Plus, are we not the audience seeing as they are working for us (allegedly).

    “All mature political parties work through the principle of collective responsibility and blogs can threaten this.”

    Mature? What exactly is immature about letting the electorate know what is happening behind the scenes of a Government that they voted for? And which affects their lives EVERY day?

    Good grief!

  20. Bedd Gelert

    Isn’t the tricky thing here that if you are on your way ‘up’ the ministerial ladder, however glacially slowly, you can always kid yourself that you could one day be ‘Prime Minister’ ? But what, realistically, do you have to look forward to now ?

    Could things be different under another leader ? Or could you try to ‘do a Portillo’ and run for the top job yourself ? Or do you ‘call the whole thing off’, and prepare for a [potentially very lucrative] career in broadcasting, the ‘meeja’ and transport ?

  21. Pingback: CivicSurf » Ex-Minister Tom Harris on blogging

  22. Jane

    Thank you for the insight and I am really sorry about losing your job . I sincerely hope it was not related to your blog nor to your defence of the character of David Cairns which I understand has also been mentioned.

    I was unaware that you had been approached to sign the letter that was forwarded to Tony Blair. I will never forgive those who signed the letter and I note that many of them now have government jobs – interesting for me to note that. What it does point up to me is that you are a man of integrity and one who is true to their friends. David Cairns is a good man and I was appalled initially at the attempt to besmirch his character.

    I hope you soon adjust to the back benches and keep telling yourself that you were a good Minister despite being removed. Somehow, I do not think No 10 likes anyone being popular – look at the announcements made from there rather than departments. Your blog has made you human and popular – not good for the PR machine behind the PM!!!

    Keep your chin up, keep blogging and enjoy the media appearances. I am sure you will continue to be in demand. It is the governments loss that you have been removed.

  23. Zorro

    John M said what I was going to say, and more succinctly!

  24. joe bonanno

    Later on, I would think of clever retorts and witty one-liners, such as “Oh, bloody hell, Gordon!

    Sheesh – do yourself a favour, leave the witty one-liners to me.

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  27. dreamingspire

    What was it that I heard about you? That you got on well with people involved in running rail transport, I think. Trouble is, very little practical happened, and worse and worse confusion reigns at a time when civil servants have more freedom to speak their minds in the Brown era – so you get the flak for rail. The Ministerial team did not sort out the failure to move from silos to matrix management – its nearly a year ago that I heard that one top of the tree person told an academic that its not working, and my recent experience looking in from outside is of chaos in relation to rail, nothing happening in relation to bus, and the big public transport groups feeling secure in doing their own thing (whether it follows policy or suits them). Yes, I read Roger Ford, and even he cannot work out how many rail vehicles are going to be procured. Policy that is accompanied by implementation dates that we all know will not be delivered (e.g. through smart ticketing from long distance commuter services onto the tube, to be operating by end 2009 – civil servant to Transport Committee at end 2007), because the dept doesn’t enter into contractual and working relationships that will make it happen, is something that just turns us off. No, the first Brown team in DfT didn’t do well on delivery. But its hard work moving from a Victorian culture to a seamless service delivery organisation.

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