Iain Murray: Yes minister, your role is in an advisory capacity

When Stephen Twigg ousted Michael Portillo in 1997 one might have hoped for great things. It was not to be, but he is minister for young people. By Iain Murray

It is generally agreed that few moments in the long history of our parliamentary democracy compare with that glorious and memorable May night in 1997 when the young and unknown Stephen Twigg overturned a thumping majority in the constituency of Enfield Southgate and ousted the strutting caudillo Michael Portillo.

Twigg, who has since kept a clean nose, and a sheet likewise, succeeded in retaining the seat in last year’s General Election. His reward: an atom of power. He now luxuriates in the title of Her Majesty’s Minister for Young People.

It is a chalice not so much poisoned as empty. We need a minister for young people as much as a minister for middle-aged people or a minister for ships and shoes and sealing wax. Thus the garlanded victor of Enfield Southgate finds himself in possession of an in-tray with nothing in it. He cannot, however, be seen to be idle, which explains the item in his out-tray called “Dads & Sons, a winning team”.

At a cost of £73,000 this extraordinary booklet sets out to instruct fathers in how to become involved in their sons’ education. For instance, it suggests that a dad taking a son to the cinema should ask the lad, “If a film is estimated to make £10m at the box office and the distributor takes 40 per cent, how much will that be?” Another tip is to take the boy to a sports club or shop and ask him to estimate the number of square metres of floor and wall space.

Twigg’s reward for this initiative is to have had much derision poured upon his head. Some critics have unkindly pointed out that he is himself unmarried, has no children and cannot therefore know whereof he speaks. He replies with irrefutable ministerial logic that he had a father. (So the miracle of Enfield Southgate notwithstanding, Twigg is not the result of an immaculate conception.) In any case, this criticism is misplaced. Since when has an absence of personal knowledge or experience been a bar to offering advice to others who have both? To take just one example, the world of public relations is brimful of bright young girls newly disgorged from good schools who do not shrink from telling grizzled old businessmen how to run their companies.

So in a spirit of sympathetic accord with Twigg, this column offers its own guide, called “Hold on to Nurse”. In simple layperson’s language it suggests some useful exercises to help people cope with the nanny state. Here are some excerpts:

Should you happen upon Mr Stephen Twigg in the street (not as unlikely as it may seem; a friend of mine had a surprise encounter with the MP in Palmers Green high street), say to him, “Hello, Mr Twigg.” This is both polite and informal. Next, stand back and make an assessment of his inside leg measurement in centimetres. Next make a guess as to his hat size in inches. Divide the former by the latter and see where it gets you.

When you are next in your local pub, count the number of bottles of spirits behind the bar and calculate their contents in units of alcohol. Drink three pints of strong ale and repeat the exercise. If the results are different ask yourself why.

If a very fat man eats five portions of fruit each day followed by five portions of vegetables, where does that get him? (Marks are deducted for facetious answers concerning lavatories.) It may help to remember that the potatoes are egg-sized.

How many young girls wanting to be hairdressers rather than engineers does it take to arouse the indignation of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs? How does this compare with the number of editors of women’s magazines who are putting pressure on young women to be thin? If the editors were to be called into Westminster for a pep talk, would the hot air contribute to a global warming scenario in a very real and meaningful way?

Using probability theory, calculate the risks of poor diet and lack of exercise, divide by the number of people who fail to check the safety of their appliances, who do not install smoke alarms, drive safely, fasten seat belts, wear cycle helmets, cover up in the sun, protect others from second-hand smoke, or dry between their toes, and multiply by the amount of Elastoplast used.

If an infinite number of DIY enthusiasts climb an infinite number of ladders who is to blame? (Hint: the answer has something to do with television programmes.)

Imagine you have been put in charge of a Personal Hygiene Initiative. Do you (a) personally undertake to give a demonstration of hand-washing and summon the press for a photo-call? (b) publish a free booklet “You and your Armpits” or (c) issue some “staggering” statistics on the number of working days lost as a direct result of malodorous feet?

Think long and hard about ways in which people may be discovered behaving outside the control of bureaucracy (they may for instance be going to bed without flossing their teeth or having failed to drink three litres of water a day). What sort of “guidelines” can you issue? Don’t forget to include key words such as “at risk”, “disturbing”, “premature” and “fatal”.

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