Imagine. Your party romps home. The new PM asks you to run a ministry - your first senior position in government. You blush prettily and accept. You walk out to massed clicking cameras thinking: "Power! Mine! At last!"
You arrive at the ministry determined to make an impact - and to kick idle civil servant ass. But before your foot leaves the ground, a flock of heavily polyestered officials swirl around you. Papers. Quick tour. Briefing meetings. Several top secret papers to sign. "My god! I had no idea..."
Then it's your first diary session. You are told that you leave for Brussels in two days' time for the next ministerial on the Widget Harmonisation Directive: "Tricky one, Secretary of State. French playing hardball, Poles/Dutch should back us. Thousands of UK jobs at stake. Media interest altitudinal if it goes pear-shaped. From Brussels you fly to the Bratislava Group event. Back next morning in time for parliamentary questions - briefing at the airport when you arrive."
You stagger through the front door that night at 10pm, clutching a heavy red box full of papers and a dull headache gained at a passing reception. "Darling! Your first day in command! Did you stick it to them?"
You try to sleep, your mind swirling among the recommendations in that red box which you nervously signed off. How to survive all this, let alone achieve anything? How are you going to be a good minister?
Here are some tips to set you on the path to success.
Everything comes from the top. That means from you. Spell out that the deal is simple. The civil servants should advise frankly, you listen carefully, then you decide, and finally, they loyally implement. No muttering or leaking. Anyone who has a personal problem loyally implementing any policy decision can come and see you to discuss it.
Issue an edict telling the ministry that if they mess up you take full public responsibility, but that in turn you expect them to be diligent and intelligent - failure to warn your office of a potentially serious problem will lead to dismissal.
Get a lean, mean private secretary tasked to tell you frankly if you are losing the plot, but then obey orders ruthlessly when you have thrashed things out.
Tidy your outer office. Keep it tidy. Instruct the ministry to attach nothing to a bare wall with sticky tape. Abolish dress-down Fridays. Order every room in the ministry to be tidied with surplus papers and stuff summarily thrown out in major team-building exercise. Launch a speedy review of standards of cleanliness and smartness. Then raise them.
Do not squabble with other ministerial colleagues. Instruct your special advisers that if they brief or leak against other parts of the government they'll be sacked. Then ostentatiously sack one or two to ram home the point.
Find a smart, tough, thrusting civil servant. Set her/him loose speedily and searchingly to review the ministry's interface between you and the public - how all arrangements for mail, email, faxes, telephone calls, answerphones, website and visitors work in practice. Then, improve on that process making sure ministry visitors are handled speedily and courteously.
Abolish the over-staffed flabby units devoted to diversity and anti-bullying. Use the money saved to put round a short circular instructing all staff to behave in a fair and courteous manner and to set up a new quick-win bonus scheme to encourage Easy Win changes/reforms.
Abolish all restrictions on posting material on the ministry's intranet so that internal moans and grievances can be aired anonymously. Make sure senior management keep an eye on it with a view to fixing problems quickly.
Instruct your private secretary to issue frequent minutes on your authority to good official(s) commending fast, effective work. Make sure she/he does it.
Instruct the ministry to serve up to you no papers longer than four sides with a maximum of 20 pages of annexes. Each submission has to contain a short paragraph offering an explicitly 'radical alternative' to the recommendation proposed, so that the machine does not coast on auto-pilot.
Be an adult. Keep your focus unrelentingly on substance. If a conference you are leading is coming up, work hard on the operational outcomes. Do not waste valuable publicly funded time fretting over how many times your face appears in the brochure.
Having set out your stall, then run the ministry. All pretty straightforward.
So, how have different ministers performed against these basic common sense standards during my nearly 30 years in the civil service?
Ambiguously is the answer.
Apart from a clear ministerial tendency to take no obvious interest in smartness of attitude and of presentation - hence their evident slump - a sinister new attitude to ministerial responsibility has emerged. If something goes wrong, the minister blames his/her civil service team rather than accept responsibility.
This is a profound, even dangerous change in the way our country is governed. It arises directly from the cynical emphasis on 'spin' brought in by the Labour government from the start, as led by 10 Downing Street.
Not only are civil servants dumped in it. Remember those oily BBC reporters outside No.10 making clear that Tony Blair's No.10 was 'distancing itself' from problems in one or other ministry's portfolio? It is deeply corrupting.
Another longstanding problem is that ministers can sometimes be lazy. They may not read the papers they are given or do not care about the key problems they are being paid to tackle.
This is not surprising. Any department covers a vast waterfront of issues, many of which are very technical and politically 'unsexy'. No minister or even ministerial team can keep on top of all of them. That said - if word comes down from the Secretary of State's office that the boss simply will not take papers on one of these subjects, melancholic bureaucratic listlessness sets in. If the top is not bothered, why should the bottom care?
Thus an issue which is merely a problem risks developing into a problem with a capital 'P'. When that happens, the minister can blather that his incompetent officials did not warn him or her. But that happened because the minister did not want to be warned.
Here are some examples:-
Sir Geoffrey Howe was assiduous with his papers. Thick submissions would reappear from his office with a tiny tick of red ink deep in a dense annex. He was the polar opposite of a spin-doctor, insisting on nailing down an argument to the utmost precision even if that meant missing a media deadline.
Former Minister for Europe Keith Vaz, appeared more interested in the 'big picture'. His Balkan policy evidence session before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons in February 2001 was an example, I felt, of talking at great length and saying little.
The late Robin Cook had an astounding memory. In the car on the way to his first meeting with President Izetbegovic in Sarajevo in 1997 he pushed his FCO briefing dismissively aside and asked me what to say. I offered four impromptu suggestions, to which he listened impassively. With a few minutes to go in the meeting he had covered two of them; I was pleased with myself. Then he told Izetbegovic that he wanted to add just two more points, and ran over the other two thoughts.
His exemplary memory helped him lyrically schmooze a large crowd of European ministers, greeting them all by first names and offering a quick point or two - he was a remarkably gifted man.
In contrast, his obsession with the media went beyond anything we ever experienced in the FCO before or since, and I felt this occasionally skewed his judgement.
Essentially, democratic politics and diplomacy are not about micro-managing the media or being fearsomely clever, but rather showing intelligent sympathy with others' points of view and looking for creative ways forward.
In terms of sheer technique evincing charm and policy grip, for me one former minister stands well clear of the long field - Michael Portillo, whom I encountered when he was Defence Secretary.
He showed exemplary courtesy in greeting foreign guests on the steps of the Ministry of Defence then escorting them to his office. In meetings he had read the briefs and was lively and interesting. No senior visitor could fail to be flattered and impressed which, when it comes down to it, has to be the most desirable outcome.
Was Michael Portillo therefore a fine Defence Secretary? It's not for me to say, but I would be delighted to work with him again.
So what's the moral of this story?
Being a minister and leading thousands of civil servants to try to give the British public a good government is a tough job. It need not be thankless. Run a tight, tidy, honourable and open-minded ship. A good leader mobilises good followers.
Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw