Humphrey is rarely moved to write on wider government issues (particularly Brexit), and certainly does not wish to express his views on it. Sometimes though something happens that is so staggeringly stupid and yet so widely propagated that a reply is called for to try and set things straight. In this case it is the ridiculous assertion doing the rounds on social media and political spokespeople that David Davis went into meetings with the EU without any paperwork on him.
One of the tasks that generations of Civil Servants have come to dread is the Friday afternoon phone call, usually just when the finish line is in sight going something along the lines of “we’ve just found out the Minister is going to Upper Bongozwania over the weekend and needs a full brief with lines to take”. This is the cue for a flurry of work as briefs are pulled together, lines to take on policy issues formulated and every conceivable issue that could come up is pulled together into one briefing pack that sets up the trip, its objectives and what the Minister needs to do or say at various points. This is then passed to a member of the Private Office, who ensure that it is seen by the Minister, who is prepared adequately for the trip.
A somewhat flippant view perhaps, but it demonstrates that even the most short notice visit will generate some form of paperwork to inform, advise and support the Minister in executing their duties. One of the great ironies of ministerial office, perhaps beautifully captured by ‘Yes Minister’ is how little real ability to really set the agenda or ‘go it alone’ that the average Minister really has. In reality most have wide and complex portfolios, and require effective support from their civil servants to understand the issues, and ensure they can successfully chair a meeting or work a room. A good Minister can make it look so effortless to outsiders, that they are in control of their brief, that they know all the details and that people walk away feeling that the Minister personally cares about their subject. What they don’t see is the huge amount of briefing preparation for these events by the Civil Service to protect their Minister, or the way that some Ministers are very good at improvising, adapting and overcoming to meet any given situation…
When travelling, Ministers usually find themselves rushed from car to building to meeting room to exit to car with barely a moment to stop. When they arrive in the meeting room, often jetlagged and wondering what day/week/month it is depending how long they've been on the road, there is often an official photographer there ready to take a photo of the moment (or in some cases, particularly the Middle East, a TV crew as well). This is literally a snapshot in time, occurring right at the start of the meeting before anything substantive has been discussed, and before the table is disfigured under coffee cups and sugary snacks (essential survival tools for long days on the road). It is very rare indeed to have time to unpack and set up before the photographer takes the photos and then departs so the real work can begin.
In the photo that is being discussed at length, it is worth realising a few key points. Firstly, it appears that the photo was taken at the start of the meeting, so highly unlikely that there would have been time to get the paperwork out. Secondly, given the penchant for Downing Street photographers to snap shots of briefing material to cause scandal, even if there was time, why would you run the risk of creating another mini news scandal by potentially giving them material to work with?
Finally comparisons with those from the EU present with the paperwork seem unduly harsh – given they have probably walked down from their office to be in the room, its not unreasonable that they bring the paperwork with them. By contrast if you’ve travelled internationally, then the chances are that you’ll have the papers in your bag. In other words, there is literally nothing here except for a PR photo that has gone viral despite it saying nothing at all.
It is a damning reflection on how infantile and facile the news agenda is when a single photo, a snapshot of time can somehow lead a legion of Twitterati and the front page of a tabloid paper to assume that a Minister has turned up without any briefing papers. The lack of willingness to apply common sense, to think conventionally or to question what is being shown perhaps highlights how hard it is to get complex policy challenges debated credibly in the UK. Instead the debate boils down to deciding its all over before its even started, simply because a photo was taken before the paperwork was dug out.
What an utterly depressing state we appear to be in. What is even more depressing is that in future, its probably a safe bet to assume every such PR photo will feature reams of paperwork on the desks and howls of outrage from the environmentalist lobby over the trees that died in the service of briefing Queen & Country...