It is said that when President Kennedy met Chairman Khrushchev for the first time he found it a very gruelling ordeal. The young President was inexperienced, physically weak and had had a pampered progress to the Presidency. Khrushchev on the other hand was tough, experienced, wily and knew his opponents weakness. In exasperation Kennedy is reported to have exclaimed, “The difference between your system Mr Chairman and ours is that we admit our mistakes and try and correct them. You don’t.” Without missing a beat Khrushchev replied, “But Mr President we do admit our mistakes. We have admitted all of Stalin’s.”

At Westminster you can often hear “We are where we are,” or “We have to deal with where we are and look forward.” Admitting an error, let alone apologising, remains the very hardest things our leaders find able to do. The received wisdom at Westminster is that we, the voters, will think less of them if they do either. The political need is always to try and shift a conversation to what is being done, rather than dwell on what’s happened. Examination of decisions taken is a dangerous game for politicians. Taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions often brings a shiver to the spine of many serving and former ministers.

Nevertheless on taking office as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak went some way on the steps of No 10 to admitting some of Liz Truss’s most serious mistakes, and in the Autumn Statement he and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, did what they thought was necessary to try and put things right. It was a statement aimed at restoring confidence in government economic policy. Over in the City of London the markets stayed quiet. This is what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor needed to happen, and it did. Job done. That is the immediate and important job of pacifying the markets. The political job of restoring confidence in the government’s ability to govern has only just begun. The Autumn Statement was a beginning.

The publisher of Reaction and Times columnist, Iain Martin, has written elsewhere of the need for a new programme of public service reform. He is right. There is a great need for the new government to set out its new policy on how it intends to deliver better public services with less available money to spend. Few can really believe that simply trying to spend more and more money on the services and infrastructure projects we need is the sole and credible answer to a weary and concerned public. In other areas the Prime Minister is moving swiftly to bring new approaches. He has built a better relationship with continental allies and with the US than his immediate predecessors. He has better Cabinet discipline and support too than they enjoyed. In the few short weeks since he took on the Premiership the government of the United Kingdom has recovered much of its sense of focus and balance. Now the period of waiting for and delivering the Autumn Statement is over the hard day-to-day business of government will bear in on the Prime Minister and his government. 

On the internet you can find a series of interviews with Cabinet Secretaries from Robert Armstrong up to Jeremy Heywood, conducted by the historians Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon. (You can find the first one here: They are well worth watching. All the ones that worked closely with Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister spoke of both her focus and her ability to make the system deliver what she wanted. (All the ones that worked with Tony Blair talk about the obsession with media management.) Lord McDonald of Salford, the former top mandarin in the Foreign Office, who has been out selling his new book is not always notably friendly to Conservative politicians but when asked about the different Prime Ministers he worked for said the same things about Mrs Thatcher as did the Cabinet Secretaries and indeed went further. He said he thought Mrs Thatcher was the best Prime Minister Britain had had in three hundred years. Politicians before Tony Blair came into office understood government is a complicated and sophisticated thing to undertake. It requires sophisticated, experienced and clever people to do it well. Successful Prime Ministers and Ministers work well with their officials and others inside and outside of government. Tony Blair came to office with no previous experience of any level of government and set a media obsessed style of governing that played fast and loose with established governing practices and norms. His government lowered the standard of competence and effectiveness in governing, whilst being very good at the business of winning the votes to be able to form a government. Things have not improved under his five successors and it’s been noticeable how successive governments have achieved less and less of what they set out to do.

In recent weeks we have heard frequent references to Mrs Thatcher, and there are lessons to be learnt from how She governed. Often they are not the ones people most like to focus on. They include communicating to and inspiring the civil servants who deliver policy, building strong relationships with business, academe, voluntary groups, the military, and the creative community. Invite the very best advice you can get and listen to it. Build confidence in your government by attracting great talent from outside Westminster to serve in it. Inside No 10 appoint really experienced and successful people to work with you, not just young people who have never done anything except politics. Above all communicate with the country. Tell us what your vision is for Britain, what you want to do and how you intend to do it. There are many good lessons Mrs Thatcher can teach this generation of politicians.

Rishi Sunak has done perhaps the easiest part of what is likely to be a very testing Premiership, resetting the nation’s economic policy. He is perhaps the most disciplined, able and well rooted Prime Minister we have had since David Cameron and he has a once in a generation to reset how we are governed. We need to be better governed. For the sake of the country we must hope that Rishi Sunak will learn the right lessons from his great predecessor.