What's really in a red box?
The ministerial box is a beautifully engineered, tank of a suitcase, lovingly crafted out of slow-grown pine and ram’s leather. But what goes inside the box is compiled with equal care.
It’s a far cry from life in opposition, where decadent things like briefings for meetings are as rare as a visit to the green benches from Gordon Brown. If a shadow minister asked the average parliamentary researcher for a suitcase of carefully sorted information for the next day they’d be sorely disappointed...
Private offices compile the contents of a red box, and they all have their own ways of laying out their boss’ ‘homework’. Below is how a typical box might be assembled:
Interestingly, at the top of the box you’ll usually find a file marked ‘urgent’. I would suggest that if you’ve got something genuinely urgent you want your minister to see you probably wouldn’t put it in a suitcase for later. A more fitting name would be the ‘important, but not important enough for me to bother you during the day for’ file, but I guess that’s not that catchy.
In here you’ll find quotes that need approval (once again these aren’t quotes that the press office actually need urgently, but they still make it into the ‘urgent’ file). Urgent submissions will also grace this file (for example if policy positions have been questioned by the press). If the department is working on a Bill there may also be suggestions for amendments/alterations. Equally, an urgent speech that needs approval could also make the cut.
FILE 2. IMPORTANT
As we’ve already seen, the urgent file should really be named ‘important’ so the ‘important’ file should probably be renamed the ‘stuff that you should probably look at’ file.
In here you’ll find less important submissions, summarised by the relevant Assistant Private Secretary (APS). The length of these summaries will depend on the attention span of the minister in question and will vary quite dramatically.
You’ll also find pre-brief briefings here. Weird concept I know but it takes about a week for a minister to prepare for say a Select Committee meeting and civil servants take prep for them very seriously indeed. A minister will be briefed several times in person before the event, but just in case that’s not enough, you’ll get a brief to read, to brief you ahead of your brief.
FILE 3. DIARY
Most MPs will be used to having a diary file. But the diary file you get as a minister is the Rolls Royce of diary files. For example, a minister can decide which invitations to accept/decline without getting their private office involved right? Wrong. Each invitation will also have a suggested action/response compiled by the APS and policy specialists.
FILE 4. MEETING PAPERS
As a shadow minister you might receive a short verbal brief, maybe on the way to the meeting, from your researcher: ‘These guys will want x, you probably shouldn’t say y...’. Any brief (if you could call it that) would very much satisfy its definition.
But a minister can rely on a detailed brief for every meeting they attend; outlining who they are seeing, topics that may come up, awkward questions, lines to take etc... Each brief will be compiled by the APS together with the departmental policy specialists for that area.
Finalised speeches will also be included in this file. These will have been drafted by a speech writer in conjunction with policy specialists, edited by the APS, finessed by the Private Secretary (PS) and then probably rewritten a few times by the minister. By the time a speech gets into the meeting papers file it should be an immaculately crafted piece of oratory.
FILE 5. PARLIAMENTARY QUESTIONS
Each day a minister might have anywhere between 5 and 25 PQs to answer. Each PQ (compiled by the Parliamentary Branch in conjunction with policy specialists) will come with an accompanying brief, with infomation on who is asking the question, relevant background info and a suggested answer. Particularly controversial answers may be flagged up by the PS or APS. The file will be separated into Commons and Lords questions.
Ministers will get used to certain MPs who reel off of hundreds and hundreds of PQs to certain departments and are likely to be found affectionately toasting their good health as they sign off reams of their PQs late into the night.
FILE 6. LETTERS
Very similar to Parliamentary Questions, each response will have already been drafted by the correspondence unit, and been approved by the APS. Once again controversial letters should be flagged up by the PS/APS as by the time a minister gets to this file their brain is probably frazzled and it would be very easy to let a stinker slip through.
So there you have it – a meticulously compiled super-brief with contributions from press officers, policy specialists, diary secretaries, private secretaries, correspondence experts and parliamentary specialists. A thing of beauty to match the grandeur of its container.