A gentleman proposes and a lady disposes …


“Advisers advise, and ministers decide – but some ministerial decisions require far more than reliance on advisers.”

Why PMs and ministers should read the legal texts for which they are responsible

I always thought it was a gentleman proposes and a lady disposes …

Any way, civil servants respect Ministers (and others) who read their papers and ask intelligent questions.

The degree of disrespect, if not contempt, held by officials for the current shower must be prodigious.

The likely successor to Len McCluskey as General Secretary of Unite, Gerard Coyne, fingers crossed, is widely respected by people on both sides of the negotiating table and the aisle, partly because he does his homework.

I have to confess, though, that Coyne is from Birmingham and he was the member of a board I served for a few years (and I know him in other contexts). I like the man.

Coyne read his papers and asked informed questions. Other board members, but not all of them, all of the time, did not and it was very frustrating (and wasteful of time) to point out the answer to a question they posed was in paragraph five on the first page of the relevant board paper.

Time is money, even in the public sector.

There is, I think, a broader point to make here. Boris Johnson attends meetings with world leaders. He will, of course, be attending fewer such gatherings from now on, because of Brexit, leaving him more time for his other Prime Ministerial duties.

That notwithstanding, Johnson will be meeting with the leaders of other nations without an army of advisers and lawyers at his beck and call in the conference chamber or the Gents. A lot may be agreed at the urinal, away from the prying eyes of the media and other meeting representatives.

If your woman or man is not familiar with their papers, how do you guard against them giving away the farm or the fishing quotas in an intimate moment? And Johnson gave away a lot before Christmas without any moments of particular intimacy.

I know there was the dinner with Van Leyen, but we heard a lot about how that went. A poorly prepared Johnson, and it was his fault he was not adequately briefed for the occasion, made an ass of himself and that before we consider the impact of his racist remarks on the negotiations.

As it happens, I sat as a representative, if not a plenipotentiary for the organisations of which I was a member, on the Birmingham and Solihull European Funding Sub Regional Group. I had to know my position inside out, particularly on the rare occasions when I was being held to account at the meeting, a fairly novel position for a civil servant in Birmingham.

I also had to have read the papers of the others at the meeting that had been issued with the agenda. First and foremost, to learn how their content related to the work of my organisation. Did it have a negative, positive or neutral impact on our work or was it something outside of our remit?

My appraisal of the content of the papers shaped my approach to the meeting.

Secondly, it was a matter of courtesy to familiarise oneself with the positions of others, even when outside of one’s remit, and displaying that insight generated goodwill with the chair, minute taker and the others around the table.

Thirdly, one might support an individual to put their case to the meeting more effectively and, thereby, support the chair. More goodwill created, especially if the matter fell outside of what was known to be your remit.

As an aside, I had been well trained in making meetings work and part of the training was about how you might help to make meetings both useful and time bound, even if you were not the chair.

Fourthly, if you have built up some goodwill, you will find it easier than otherwise to get people to listen to your concerns about their proposals. You will, all other things being equal, also find yourself getting their support for proposals you are making.

Fifthly, civil servants are not especially well liked. The fact that the stuffed shirt in the three piece suit and the bowler hat, a tale for another day, had done a sceptic the courtesy of reading their paper and, on opening his mouth, revealed he had not only read it, but understood it, broadly approved of it and was supportive of its aims, went a long way to dispel any animosity in the room.

The art of diplomacy includes seeking advantage wherever it may be found and one may not do that, if one is not well informed.

And then there is the ‘small’ matter of empathy.

This has a particular relevance in the context of negotiations, because if I know the other person’s position, I have read their papers and other briefing, but I am not happy about some (or all) of what they are seeking, I may search for alternative propositions with which I am happy and which one hopes meet their essential requirements. Some times people do ask for more than they really want and will, ‘grudgingly’, settle for less.

I fear David Frost and Johnson may not have grasped that Donald Trump’s Trump: The Art of the Deal is mostly a badly written work of fiction.

“Another whisky, Adam West, sorry, Ambassador, I don’t mind, if I do …”

Coming, soon, to a remainder bin near you.

“Are You Leader or Mouse? The Art of Negotiation” by Lord Frost.

A 99p Shop Sir John Harvey Jones …

And that even busking it requires putting in hours of hard work, of preparation and great dedication to the task in hand.

That is what marks out Prime Ministers like David “I want to sit down with the expert in this policy area and pick their brains” Lloyd George; Winston “one side of well argued A4 to get my attention” Churchill and Clement “democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking” Attlee from many another British Prime Minister.

How the Brexit deal was done — and what happens next

Is Keir Starmer serious about winning power

Charles I, for the want of good advice, was executed on 30th January 1649

4 thoughts on “A gentleman proposes and a lady disposes …

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