Wales Office, PR, Silk, red boxes and 'The Thick of It'

Former Welsh Secretary David Jones Image copyright Wales Office
Image caption David Jones photographed at the Wales Office during his time as secretary of state

Former Welsh Secretary David Jones has given an interesting insight into ministerial life during the coalition government.

He is one of 24 former ministers to share their experiences with the Institute for Government. Mr Jones was secretary of state between September 2012 and July 2014 and says his time was dominated by the future of devolution, in particular the Silk commission.

"Silk dominated my life in the Wales Office from the moment I was appointed until the moment I left," he said. "It was the biggest issue of all."

He added: "As a Wales Office minister, you're essentially involved in a constitutional exercise and a public relations exercise. Obviously, there are very few administrative powers in the Wales Office but there is a lot of constitutional stuff.

'Stakeholders'

"And, interestingly also, you have to be across the work of other departments too because other Whitehall departments obviously impinge upon Wales so you frequently found yourself acting as a buffer in both directions between other government departments and - I hate using the word but I will - 'stakeholders' in Wales."

And the public relations exercise? "The work of a secretary of state, quite apart from the constitutional aspect of the work, there is a great deal of PR. You're dealing with civil society in Wales. There is still huge confusion in Wales as to who does what, notwithstanding devolution having been in place since 1999. A lot of people don't understand who does what."

Mr Jones says his officials were "a lot more official than I expected". He may have been criticised for using a ministerial car for the short journey from Whitehall to Downing Street but explains: ."I would usually be in the office before eight o'clock. Much to my annoyance, they used to send a car to pick me up which was really not picking me up; it was picking the red box up which obviously I had got at home with me.

"You start very early. I found that actually quite annoyed the officials because they didn't like me getting in at eight o'clock. They had this thing that there had always to be an official present when I turned up and I told them that the world wouldn't come to an end if they weren't".

'The Thick of It'

And how did he cope with crises?

"There were very few crises. Very few. There was one very early in my career in the Wales Office, just after I'd been appointed - it must have been within a month or two - which frankly was like a script from The Thick of It. I can't remember precisely what had gone wrong but I know there were a lot of people running around and trying to talk across one another and I actually said, 'This is like The Thick of It'. But, no, there weren't many crises. The [Wales] Office was very well organised."

His greatest achievement? The Wales Act 2014 - "We took that through the Commons very successfully with no amendments."

Mr Jones said that he tried to avoid the "really bad idea" of ministers micro-managing officials' work. "I know that Peter Riddell agrees with that. One of the first things he said when we went to one of our induction courses was, 'For God's sake, don't try and do everything yourself'. And he actually mentioned a past secretary of state for Wales as being an example of a really bad manager because he had to do everything personally."

I wonder who that past secretary of state could be?

Mr Jones says he would do some things differently if he had his time again but appears to have few regrets: "You may be getting exhausted but it doesn't last that long, anyway, especially with this prime minister - most people get shuffled out after a relatively short time. So just enjoy it, work as hard as you can and you have an experience that will be unmatched. Very few people get to sit at the cabinet table so it's a privilege."

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