Backstabbing for backbenchers

27 Jan 06
ALAN LEAMAN | Just occasionally in politics, all is not as it seems.

Just occasionally in politics, all is not as it seems.

While the airwaves have been full this week with arguments over the government’s education reforms, Public Finance’s own employment counsellor has received a letter from one of the protagonists.

Here’s the correspondence:

Dear Public Finance

I’m worried about my boss. I want him to leave.

I can’t bring myself to tell him. But he’s clinging on like he intends to stay for years and it’s getting a lot of us down. If it carries on like this, I will soon say or do something that I’ll regret — and damage my career (bad) as well as his (good).

There was a time at the beginning when he seemed to have a magic touch. But the atmosphere has gone sour recently.

There are more and more arguments in the office. To make it worse, our leading competitor has recently got a new boss who seems to be licking them into shape.

I’m not the only one who feels like this. If he doesn’t go soon, I’m not sure we’ll be able to restrain ourselves. What should we do?

A backbencher

Dear Backbencher

I can sense from your letter the frustration you feel and the hurt that you must be going through. It has been a long time since your boss announced that he was planning to leave.

There are almost no precedents in your line of business for what your colleagues are calling an ‘orderly transition’. Senior managers in this sector usually persuade themselves that they are indispensable.

It also can’t help that, just as all the other organisations in your sector are changing the people at the top, your boss shows every sign of planning to stay as long as possible.

If you want to know how not to solve your problem, take a look at one of your competitors, whose staff recently dumped their boss and blamed it on his drinking habits. If you ever try to mount an office coup, you should be clean and swift. Don’t start it unless you know you can finish it.

Your situation calls for a more subtle approach. And I think that you may be on to it already.

The most important thing in difficult circumstances is to keep your cool. He’ll only get more obstinate and cunning if he thinks you are part of a plot to get him out. And he’ll keep reminding you that he led the pitch team when the shareholders renewed your contract last year, which is a fair point. The trick is to make him the author of his own departure.

Start by focusing your dissatisfaction on a policy issue, preferably one where you can claim the moral high ground. Education is the obvious candidate. You will always be able to say that your actions are motivated by your concern for future generations.

Once you’ve picked an issue, position it to your advantage. It is often productive to suggest that the boss has secret plans. No matter how strongly he denies them, you will have dragged him on to your ground and made him sound defensive.

Then tell people that his plans are muddled and confusing. That makes them sound dangerous, too. The beauty of this is that he can never prove you wrong.

If anyone still doubts you, tell them that you can see exactly what he’s up to and it’s no good. By then, they’ll be inclined to believe you.

All the way through this you can keep telling the outside world that you are a strong supporter of your boss, have worked with him closely on all these issues in the past, and are only trying to keep working with him in future. One useful phrase is: ‘We only want him to listen and then I’m sure we’ll agree.’

He’ll know you don’t mean a word of it. But he won’t be able to do anything about it.

Having got your approach to the policies right, you should then turn to the people. Again, it is important that you don’t attack your boss directly. Remember that some of your supporters won’t have realised yet that you are planning to get him out.

Attack the people around him instead, particularly if they are personal favourites who have benefited from his patronage —ideally with a peerage. Many people will applaud you then, whether they agree with his policies or not. Even better, use the newspapers anonymously to brief that a few sackings would help to achieve a sensible compromise. He’ll be forced to dig his heels in and you’ll garner even more support.

Finally, deploy a well-loved former boss to front your campaign against the Education Bill. He will profess loyalty and friendship. You will be arranging humiliation and defeat.

All being well, your current boss will get so frustrated and isolated that he will decide to go himself.

Good luck!

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