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How to make a prime minister paranoid; a page from the bureaucrats' playbook.

How To Make a Prime Minister Paranoid

July 2nd

Dudley Belling, the Employment Secretary, has clearly been thinking hard during Wimbledon. Straight back from the Center Court he came to me with a fascinating proposal.

In a nutshell, his plan is to relocate many of our armed forces to the north of England. He has come to the realization that, although we have 420,000 service personnel, only 20,000 of them are stationed in the north. Almost everything and everyone is here in the south. The navy is in Portsmouth and Plymouth. The Royal Air Force is in Aldershot. There are virtually no troops in Britain north of the Midlands. And yet--here's the rub--virtually all our unemployment is in the north.

Dudley is not concerned about the military personnel themselves. Many of them come from the north anyway. No, what he sees is that if we move two or three hundred thousand servicemen from the south to the north we will create masses of civilian jobs: clerks, suppliers, builders, vehicle maintenance...the possibilities are immense, limitless. Three hundred thousand extra paychecks to be spent in shops.

There is really no good argument against this proposal, and I defy the Civil Service to provide one. They should underestimate me no longer. I'm getting wise to their tricks.

Meeting today at the MOD with Alan Guthrie, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Defense, and Geoffrey Howard, the Chief of the Defense Staff.

Geoffrey was late. Not particularly soldierly, I thought, but Alan explained that this proposal by the Employment Secretary has put the whole of the Ministry of Defense into a state of turmoil.

Alan, who's new, was taking it very badly indeed. I tried to explain to him that it was a perfectly reasonable plan, seen from the Prime Minister's point of view. Alan refused to see it from the Prime Minister's point of view, remarking bitterly that this wretched proposal emanated from the Department of Employment, and defense was none of their bloody business. I corrected him: the plan emanated from the Secretary of State for Employment--the Department itself had nothing to do with it.

Furthermore, as I could see civil war between the two departments looming here, I indicated that all work on the proposal was done by the Employment Secretary's political advisers.

I pointed out to Alan that we should all stay quite calm, and that we were only dealing with a relocation proposal, not a Russian invasion. Alan said: "I'd be less worried if it were a Russian invasion--the Ministry of Defense is prepared for that."

We were all more than surprised to hear this. So he clarified the statement: what he meant was that the MOD knows what it would have to do to repel a Russian invasion. I was even more surprised, and asked if we could repel it. He said no, of course not, but at least the MOD didn't have to do any more thinking about it.

It was up to me nominally to defend the Employment Secretary's proposal, since the Prime Minister has publicly supported it, so I reiterated that, although the armed forces contain a lot of men from the north, they are not the ones who are unemployed now. And the Employment Secretary's scheme is designed to help those who are currently unemployed.

Alan felt that we were doing quite enough already. Many of our troops from the north were unemployed, that's why they joined up. This argument won't wash with the PM, who is concerned about jobs in the north, whereas the troops who have joined up in the north are spending all their money in the south where they now are.

Alan said that this was logically inevitable, since there is nothing to spend it on in the north.

Field Marshal Sir Geoffrey Howard joined us. He went straight on to the attack, informing me that this proposal must be stopped. He told me that you can't just move hundreds of thousands of men around the country like that.

I thought that's what you did with armies. It sounds a feeble argument to me. But upon closer examination it was the permanence of the move to which he objected. Quite reasonably.

He conceded that some servicemen could be stationed permanently in the north of England: other ranks perhaps, junior officers possibly. But he made it clear, very properly, that we really cannot ask senior officers to live permanently in the north.

I asked for a list of reasons. He obliged. 1. Their wives wouldn't stand for it. 2. No schools. [There were schools in the north of England at this time, but perhaps Sir Geoffrey meant that suitable fee-paying schools were not accessible--Ed.] 3. Harrods is not in the north. 4. Nor is Wimbledon. 5. Ditto Ascot. 6. And the Henley Regatta. 7. Not to mention the Army and Navy Club.

In short, he argued that civilization generally would be completely remote. This sort of sacrifice is acceptable to the forces in time of war, but if the move were made in these circumstances, morale would undoubtedly plummet.

I was impatient with these arguments. The matter is to be discussed in Cabinet this afternoon, and more serious arguments are required than senior officers being 300 miles from the club, however disturbing, however true!

Geoffrey could think of nothing more serious than that. He remarked indignantly that chaps like him and me might have to move up there.

I pressed him for objective reasons against the plan. He insisted that these were objective reasons. I decided against showing him the dictionary, and enquired if there are any strategic arguments against it.

He said there were. Several. My pencil poised, I asked him to list them. He was unable to do so. He said that he hasn't had time to think about it yet, but that strategic arguments can always be found against anything. He's absolutely correct in that.

So when Alan and Geoffrey have had time to find some strategic arguments, we must ensure that if they cannot stand up to outside scrutiny we will make them top secret. This is in any case customary with all defense matters, and is the way in which we have always managed to keep the defense estimates high. We will make the strategic arguments For The Prime Minister's Eyes Only, which certainly means that they will not be subject to expert scrutiny.

However, the strategic arguments might not be sufficient to deflect the Prime Minister from the Employment Secretary's plan. So I proposed that, for additional safety, we play the man instead of the ball. This is always a good technique, and the man in question is--and deserves to be--the Employment Secretary, whose dreadful idea this was.

The plan we devised involves appealing to the Prime Minister's paranoia. All Prime Ministers are paranoid, this one more than most. It should be child's play to suggest to the Prime Minister that the Employment Secretary is plotting against him.

Geoffrey asked if this were true. Soldiers really are awfully simple people. The question is not whether there is a plot (which, so far as I know, there is not) but whether the Prime Minister can be made to believe there is.

Geoffrey asked if there were any chance of getting rid of him completely. At first I thought that he was referring to the PM, and I indicated that it would be an awful pity to get rid of him after all the effort we've put into getting him house-trained.

But it transpired that Geoffrey meant getting rid of the Employment Secretary. The man is dangerous. If he's moved from Employment he might get Industry--in which case he might try to sell the RAF. Or privatize the army. Or float the navy.

In view of the presence of one or two junior MOD officials at the meeting, I expressed appropriate horror at Field Marshal Howard's notion that humble civil servants should presume to try and remove a member of Her Majesty's Government from the Cabinet. I explained that it was out of the question, that only a Prime Minister can remove Secretaries of State.

Nonetheless, any Prime Minister would be forced to consider such drastic action if he were to suspect the loyalty of a member of his Cabinet. And since only someone in an advanced state of paranoia would suspect the Employment Secretary of a plot....

Before the meeting broke up we ensured that the minutes reflected our enthusiasm for the Employment Secretary's proposal to relocate substantial numbers of our armed forces, at all levels, to the north of England and Scotland.

July 4th

We discussed Dudley's proposal today in Cabinet Committee and I encountered opposition, just as I expected. Sir Humphrey was present. So were Max(1) and Dudley(2) and several others.

Dudley, at my prompting, asked for reactions to his paper.

Max spoke first. He was bound to be against it. "Well, Prime Minister, I know that on the face of it this plan looks as though it might benefit the employment situation in depressed areas. But this is to be achieved, as I understand it, by relocating most of our defense establishments. I suggest that it affects the Defense Department at least as much as the Department of Employment and I need time to do a feasibility study."

I looked around the table. Nobody else spoke.

"Anyone else have an opinion?" I asked. "Quickly." Brian(3), Eric(4), and Neil(5) all looked rather doubtful.

Brian said: "Well, I don't really know much about it, but it sounds like a bit of an upheaval." He's right on both counts.

Eric murmured: "Rather expensive."

And Neil commented carefully that it was rather a big move.

Having had my little bit of fun, I gave my opinion. "I'm thoroughly in favor of the proposal," I said.

"So am I," agreed Geoffrey without hesitation.

"Absolutely first-rate," said Eric, and Neil commented that it was a brilliant scheme. Sometimes being surrounded by yes-men is rather irritating, though it certainly has its compensations. And, after all, since I'm usually right on matters of government strategy it does save a lot of time when they all agree with me right away.

I smiled at my colleagues. "I think that the Secretary of State for Defense is in a minority of one."

Max stood up for himself. He was grimly determined. I have to admire that, even though he can't win this one. "Nonetheless, Prime Minister," he said, "I am the responsible minister and this can't be decided till I've done my feasibility study. The defense of the realm is in question. We must have a further meeting about this, with time allotted for a full discussion."

A reasonable request. I agreed that we would have a full discussion of it at our next meeting, in two weeks' time, after which we would put it to full Cabinet for approval.

The rest of the Committee agreed with me again. "Hear hear! Hear hear!" they all grunted vociferously.

Dudley asked: "May I request, Prime Minister, that it be noted in the minutes that the Cabinet Committee was in favor of my plan, save for one member?"

I nodded at Humphrey who made notes. But Max refused to accept Dudley's request without comment. "The one member," he remarked stubbornly, "is the member whose department would have to be reorganized. It's quite a problem."

I began to feel impatient with Max. "May I urge the Secretary of State for Defense to remember that every problem is also an opportunity?"

Humphrey intervened. "I think, Prime Minister, that the Secretary of State for Defense fears that his plan may create some insoluble opportunities."

We all laughed. "Very droll, Humphrey, but not so." I dismissed them and, as they trooped out obediently, I remained behind to catch up on the details of Dudley's proposal. I hadn't had time to read much of it before the meeting.

"Er...Prime Minister." I looked up. To my surprise, Sir Humphrey had remained behind. I gave him my full attention. Humphrey kept batting on about how the Service Chiefs didn't like the plan. Of course they didn't! One could hardly expect them to appreciate the prospect of moving their wives away from Harrods and Wimbledon.

Sir Humphrey responded snootily to this suggestion. "Prime Minister, that is unworthy. Their personal feelings do not enter into it. Their objections are entirely strategic."

"Oh yes?" I leaned back in my chair and smiled benevolently. He didn't fool me. Not any more. I spoke with heavy sarcasm. "Strategic? The Admiralty Ships Division needs a deep-water port so it obviously had to be in Bath--30 miles inland. The Marines' job is to defend Norway, so we station them in Plymouth. Armored vehicle trials are conducted in Scotland so the military engineering establishment clearly needs to be in Surrey."

"These are just isolated examples," replied Humphrey unconvincingly.

"Quite," I agreed. "And there's another 700 isolated examples in this paper." And I waved the report at him. He gazed back at me, unsmiling, cold, totally unshakable, his piercing blue eyes fixed upon me as they stared at me down his patrician nose. I hesitated.

"Why are you against it, Humphrey?" I felt I had to understand.

"I, Prime Minister? I assure you, I am not against it. I'm simply trying to furnish you with the appropriate questions. Like the question of cost."

He has completely missed the point. "But that's the whole beauty of it, Humphrey. It makes money! We sell all those expensive buildings in the south and move into cheap ones in the north. And there would be hundreds of thousands of acres of high-priced land in the Home Counties to sell too."

"So you think the Employment Secretary had done well?"

"Yes, he's a good chap."

To my surprise Humphrey agreed wholeheartedly. "Oh, I do agree with you there. Absolutely brilliant. Outstanding. A superb intellect. Excellent footwork. Strong elbows. A major figure, without doubt."

I didn't think he was that good. In fact, I was rather amazed that Humphrey went overboard for him like that. I said as much.

"But he is a good chap," insisted Humphrey. "Wouldn't you say?"

"Yes," I said. I'd already said it.

"Yes indeed," mused Humphrey. "Very popular, too."

This was news to me. "Is he?"

"Oh yes," Humphrey told me.

I wanted to know more. "Not that popular, is he?"

Humphrey was nodding, eyebrows raised, as if slightly astonished by the extent of Dudley's popularity. "Oh yes he is. In Whitehall. And with the parliamentary party, I understand."

I considered this. I suppose he's right. Dudley is very popular with the parliamentary party.

"And with the grass roots, I'm told," Humphrey added.

"Are you?"

He nodded. I wonder who tells him these things.

"And he seems to have quite a following in the Cabinet too."

A following in the Cabinet? How is that possible? I'm supposed to be the only one with a following in the Cabinet. "Tell me more." I was curious. "Sit down."

Humphrey sat opposite me but seemed unwilling to say more. "There's nothing to tell, really. It's just that people are beginning to talk about him as the next Prime Minister."

I was startled. "What? What do you mean?"

"I mean," said Humphrey carefully, "when you decide to retire, of course."

"But I'm not planning to retire. I only just got here."

"Exactly," he replied enigmatically.

I stopped to think. "Why," I asked eventually, "should people be talking about a next Prime Minister?"

"I'm sure it's just general speculation," he drawled casually.

It's all right for Humphrey to be sure. But I'm not sure. "Do you think he wants to be Prime Minister?"

Suddenly Humphrey seemed to be on his guard. "Even if he does, surely you have no reason to doubt his loyalty? He's not trying to build up a personal following or anything, is he?"

"Isn't he?"

"Is he?"

I thought about it for a few moments. "He spends a hell of a lot of time going round the country making speeches."

"Only as a loyal minister." Why was Humphrey so keen to defend him? "I'm sure he pays personal tributes to you in all of them."

We looked at each other. And wondered. "Does he?" I asked. I'd never thought of checking. I asked my secretary to get me copies of Dudley's last six speeches. At once.

We waited in silence. And it occurred to me, once I started thinking about it, that Dudley also spends a considerable amount of time chatting up our backbenchers in the House of Commons tea room.

I mentioned this to Humphrey. He tried to reassure me. "But you asked the minister to take more trouble to communicate with the party in the House."

True enough. "But he has them to dinner parties as well."

"Oh." Humphrey looked glum. "Does he?"

"Yes, he does," I replied grimly. "This starts to get worrying."

There seemed no more to say. My secretary came in and said that Employment had phoned to let us know the we wouldn't be able to get copies of Dudley's speeches till later today or tomorrow. I'll read them as soon as I get them. Meanwhile, I won't worry about it. It's lucky I'm not paranoid. And I'm also fortunate to have someone like Humphrey as my Cabinet Secretary, someone who doesn't shrink from letting me know the truth, even if it is a little upsetting.

July 5th

I couldn't sleep. This business with Dudley is really worrying. I told Annie about it, and she said airily that she's sure there's nothing to worry about. What does she know?

Today, first thing, I went through copies of Dudley's six most recent speeches. As I suspected, and feared, there was nothing in them by way of a personal tribute to me. Well, virtually nothing.

I called Humphrey in for a confidential word. Like me, he could hardly believe that Dudley had said nothing suitable about me.

"Surely," asked Humphrey, evidently puzzled, "surely he must have talked about the new Prime Minister bringing a hope to Britain? The Dawn of a New Age. You know, that leaflet you told party headquarters to issue to all MPs and constituencies?"

I shook my head. "Not a word." "That is odd."

"It's more than odd," I remarked. "It's suspicious. Very suspicious."

"Even so, Prime Minister, he surely isn't actively plotting against you?"

I wasn't so sure. "Isn't he?"

"Is he?"

"How do I know he's not?"

Thoughtfully, he stroked his chin. "You could always find out."

"Could I?"

"The Chief Whip would be bound to know."

Humphrey was right, of course. Why didn't I think of it? I told my secretary to send for the Chief Whip right away. And we were in luck. The Chief Whip was in his office at Number Twelve. We told him to drop everything and come right over.

Jeffrey Pearson, the Chief Whip, was in the Cabinet Room within ten minutes. He was evasive but during the meeting he made it perfectly clear that there is indeed some sort of leadership challenge, either led by Dudley or using Dudley as the figurehead. His problem is a lack of concrete evidence. So he can't make a move to stamp it out.

I was magnanimous. After all, one wants ambitious men in the Cabinet, one needs them. Just as long as they don't get too ambitious....

I'm grateful to Humphrey for drawing my attention to it. He really is a good man and a loyal servant.

I had a sudden urgent call from Number Ten. Hacker wanted to see me right away.

Naturally I thought I'd done something to upset him. So it was with some caution that I entered the Cabinet Room. The morning sun shone brightly through the windows, creating patterns of intense light and deep shade.

Hacker sat in the shadows. "How are things going, Chief Whip?"

Naturally I was cautious, though I had nothing to hide. I told him things were going quite well, really, and asked why.

"You mean, you've noticed nothing?"

So I was supposed to have noticed something. What, I wondered, had I missed? I couldn't think of anything in particular, though it was a slightly difficult time with a little unrest on the back benches. Unless, that is, it's a very difficult time with lots of unrest on the back benches.

"Is there anything you haven't told me?" asked the Prime Minister.

I racked my brains furiously. He prompted me. "A plot? A leadership challenge?"

I hadn't heard a thing. But I couldn't say so, because Hacker obviously had suspicions. Perhaps he even had evidence. I played safe, avoided giving a direct answer, and told him that I had no real evidence of anything.

"But you have suspicions?"

I couldn't say I hadn't...and anyway, I always have suspicions of one sort or another. "It's my job to have suspicions," I replied carefully.

"Well, what are they?"

This was tricky. "Jim," I replied with my frank manner, "it wouldn't be right for me to tell you all my suspicions, not unless or until there's something solid to go on."

"But you know who I'm talking about?"

I had no idea. "I think I can guess," I said.

Hacker remained in the shadows. I couldn't quite see his eyes. He heaved a sigh. "How far has it got?" he asked finally.

I was still searching for a clue as to the identity of the pretender. One thing I knew for sure--it hadn't got very far or I would certainly have known about it. At least, I think I certainly would.

He was waiting for reassurance. I gave it. "Only to a very early state. So far as I can tell." I was still being strictly honest.

"Do you think you ought to have a word with him?" the Prime Minister wanted to know. "Tell him I know what's going on? I don't want to lose him from the Cabinet. I just want him under control."

I didn't see how I could possibly have a word with him until I knew who he was. "Perhaps you should have a word with him yourself," I said.

He shook his head. "No. Not at this stage."

I waited.

"Who else is involved?"

I saw my chance. "Apart from...."

The Prime Minister was getting irritable. "Apart from Dudley, obviously."

Dudley! Dudley? Incredible! Dudley!!

"Oh, apart from Dudley, it's a bit early to say. After all, Prime Minister, there may not be anything to it."

The Prime Minister stood up. He stared at me over his reading glasses. He looked thin, tired, and drawn. This job is taking a toll on him, and he's only been at it less than a year. "Jeffrey, I'm not taking any risks," he said quietly.

I could see that he meant business. I left the Cabinet Room, and assigned all the Whips to make some enquiries. Top priority. After all, if there is a plot I need to know its full potential. (Hacker's diary continues--Ed.)

July 11th

I am now convinced that a dirty little scheme has been hatched behind my back. It is a disloyal, ungrateful, and treacherous plot, and I will not tolerate it.

I spoke to the Chief Whip. He said that he had no real evidence but he had suspicions. He said that he would make enquiries! He refused to tell me about them till he had something solid to go on. I regard that as proof positive.

I discussed the matter with Humphrey today. He expressed surprise that Dudley is plotting against me. "I would have thought all your Cabinet were loyal." Sometimes I am amazed at how trusting and naive Humphrey reveals himself to be. Loyal? How few people realize what the word loyalty means when spoken by a Cabinet minister. It only means that his fear of losing his job is stronger than his hope of pinching mine.

Humphrey, a tower of strength as always, offered to help. I couldn't see how he could. But he produced some papers from a file on his lap. "Technically I shouldn't show you this."

"I don't see why not. I'm Prime Minister, aren't I?"

"Yes," he explained. "That's why I shouldn't be showing it to you. It's a Minister of Defense draft internal paper. Top Secret. The Defense Secretary hasn't seen it yet." He passed it over the desk. "But as you see, it casts grave doubts on the Employment Secretary's plan."

This was a paper I was keen to read. It is fascinating. Part One pointed out that many of the "valuable" army buildings that Dudley quoted cannot be sold. Some are under strict planning controls. Some don't conform to private-sector fire and safety regulations. It all showed that the cost of the move would be prohibitive.

Part Two showed that the move would create massive unemployment in the Home Counties and East Anglia, with far fewer new jobs created in the northeast than would be lost in the south.

And then, in Part Three, which I read in bed tonight, there are pages and pages of objections on grounds of military strategy.

Tomorrow I'll question Humphrey about this further.

July 13th

At a meeting with Humphrey first thing this morning I questioned him closely about the Ministry of Defense paper. "Is it quite honest and accurate?"

Humphrey was evasive. He said that everything is a matter of interpretation. And if we were to look at the conclusion of the report we would see that all of the objections to the scheme were know to the Employment Secretary before he produced his plan. He added one rather telling point: that the whole plan may not be completely unconnected with the fact that Dudley represents a Newcastle constituency.

This had not escaped me either.

"The public," I commented, "has a right to know this."

Humphrey shook his head. "It's a top secret document." I simply stared at him, and waited. "On the other hand," he continued, "the Service Chiefs are notorious for their indiscretion."

"Notorious," I agreed.

"It could well find its way into the hands of an irresponsible journalist."

"Could it?" I asked hopefully. "Or several irresponsible journalists?"

Humphrey felt that such an eventuality was not beyond the bounds of possiblity.

I made it quite clear, however, that I could not be a party to anything like that, even though it would at least give the public the true facts. Humphrey agreed wholeheartedly that I could not be party to such a leak.

We agreed that we would defer discussion of the plan until an unspecified future date and that meanwhile Sir Humphrey would attend to the plumbing.

After he left, Bernard Woolley, the First Secretary, who sometimes lacks subtlety, turned to me. "When's he going to leak it?" he asked.

I was shocked. "Did I ask for a leak?"

"Not in so many..." he hesitated. "No, Prime Minister, you didn't."

"Indeed not, Bernard," I replied stiffly. "I have never leaked. I occasionally give confidential briefings to the press. That is all."

July 18th

Everything went like clockwork. Two days ago a story appeared in several newspapers, attributed to various nonattributable sources, effectively torpedoing Dudley's plan. (1) Sir Maxwell Hopkins, Secretary of State for Defense. (2) Dudley Belling, Secretary of State for Employment. (3) Brian Smithson, Secretary of State for Environment. (4) Eric Jeffries, Chancellor of the Exchquer. (5) Neil Hitchock, Secratary of State forr Transport.
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Title Annotation:Scams, Hustles, and Boondoggles
Author:Jay, Antony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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