By Mark Wallace
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In an ideal world, every Secretary of State would be great at their job. Given that such a world does not exist, every Government has its successful ministers and their not-so-successful colleagues.
It's worth studying what tends to distinguish the former from the latter – not least as a way to learn how to improve the way we are governed in future.
So far, it seems there are two stand-out characteristics of a good Cabinet minister:
- They want the job they're in. History is littered with the corpses of politicians who have taken a job they don't want in order to further their career, and then stuffed it up through apathy or lack of knowledge of the area they find themselves in charge of. By contrast, the most successful ministers are those who have a passion for their subject. That doesn't mean they lack ambition beyond their current post, but they are at least enthusiastic about the desks they currently sit at.
- Fortune favours the brave. With a huge deficit and a dysfunctional, large state, radicalism and boldness make for the most effective approach. Timidly sitting on your hands in the hope that if you do nothing, nothing will go wrong might seem safe but is in fact perilous when Labour left many departments steaming directly into danger. Those ministers who have remained focused on the fundamental changes that would make the most difference to Britain's future, and damn the wails from vested interests, are those who have remained the safest.
It strikes me that while Eric Pickles, IDS and Michael Gove are the most celebrated examples of both of these traits, Owen Paterson is a name which ought to be added to the list.
Whilst he has only been in the job as Secretary of State for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs since September 2012, Paterson has already started to make his mark – not only innately knowing his brief, but choosing to govern as if he were a one-term minister in order to better secure a second term.
I'm told that from his first day he identified shale gas as the most revolutionary and beneficial policy he could pursue – and therefore his primary objective. (As an aside, fox hunting was the cherry on top – but as he told Andrew Gimson, he intends to win a vote to legalise it, not just hold one ASAP). DEFRA has not traditionally been a ministry which anyone looks to for drastic economic benefits, but it has significant power to block or encourage the exploitation of the UK's onshore shale reserves.
It is ironic that while the Secretary of State for Energy, Ed Davey, has done his best to get in the way of opening up a new domestic energy resource, it is the Secretary of State for the Environment who has been one of its biggest cheerleaders.
Picking this issue as his main campaign has not been easy – he can be seen fighting green scaremongering in today's papers – but he was right to do so.
The logic is the same as that of Michael Gove's schools revolution: Paterson wagers that if he contributes to the creation of new, rural jobs, cheaper energy for manufacturers and householders and brings down pollution through new gas rather than costly renewables, then he will help the party's prospects at the next election. If the election is lost, then he will have helped Britain anyway – which ought to be a Secretary of State's job.
Close observation of the successes and failures of others has certainly encouraged him towards radicalism, but it isn't the only source of such thinking. It's worth noting that his brother-in-law, and close friend, is science writer, Times columnist and peer Matt Ridley – who is in many ways Paterson's personal think tank. That adds to his own knowledge of the subject, and gives him a handy route to overcome flawed analyses sometimes presented to him by civil servants.
ConservativeHome readers wisely chose Paterson as their "One To Watch" for 2013 – a vote of confidence which he's more than living up to.