Spare a thought for the poor Parliamentary Private Secretary, perhaps the least glamorous job in British politics. These unpaid Ministerial aides have all the responsibility of being part of the Government, with none of the power. Their job is to support their Minister, they sit on the Minister’s shoulder in the Chamber, check facts, pass notes, and nod vigorously at the appropriate moment. With no departmental responsibilities they don’t get to speak on behalf of the Government in the House of Commons, and for fear of embarassing the Minister they rarely make personal interventions, and they have none of the Whips’ powers to make threats or offer rewards. They are in some respects little more than neutered backbenchers. The job of PPS is, however, generally seen as the first step on the Ministerial ladder, and is widely coveted by those MPs who wish to climb the greasy pole, which is most of them. Time served as a PPS, it is hoped, will lead on to bigger and better things, although this can be a long process with some MPs working their way slowly up the PPS ladder before being elevated to a Ministerial post. In the recent reshuffle, for example, Ben Gummer MP, was ‘promoted’ from PPS to the Minister for International Development to PPS to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. A number of PPSs moved up the ladder to the Whips office, including Gavin Barwell and Sam Gyimah, although none moved on to Ministerial posts. Some of course, may never make it, but must content themselves with their brief moment close to power.
In his memoirs, Tony Blair writes fondly of his Parliamentary Private Secretaries, although I think it’s fair to say that none are household names:
[Bruce Grocott] was and is a wonderful guy – really sincere, decent and absolutely Labour to the innermost part of his being. In fact the best of traditional Labour He had been Mo Mowlam’s inspired suggestion for my PPS. It was a great choice. (Bruce was succeeded by two equally great choices, David Hanson and Keith Hill). David was a great networker, respected even by those who disagreed passionately with me; and also a very tuned-in politician in his own right. Keith was a witty, lovable and really tough operator who hid his toughness beneath the wit; but the toughness was there when you needed it. Keith’s great joke, which I found more amusing when I had left office, was to come and get me for PMQs at 11.57 precisely, throwing the door open and saying like a town crier: ‘Prime Minister a grateful nation now awaits.’ Tony Blair, A Journey, p.97.
For others, however, even those serving as PPS to the Prime Minister, it must seem a long way from the glamour of office. Gavin Williamson, who became PPS to the Prime Minister in the recent reshuffle received the following withering introduction to his role from the Speaker during this week’s PMQs:
Order. May I just say to the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary that his role is to nod his head in the appropriate places, and to fetch and carry notes? No noise is required.