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The egg on your face

In episode one of the excellent BBC political comedy The Thick of It, the Cabinet minister Hugh Abbott, played by Chris Langham, decides to create an agency for catching benefit cheats. He's actually about to launch what he has dubbed, in tabloid-friendly style, his "Snooper Squad" in a major speech, with the media on high alert, when he discovers that maybe the Prime Minister isn't as squarely behind the idea as he thought.

"What did he actually say, Hugh?" says fearsome piranha-chops enforcer Malcolm Tucker (The Alastair Campbell role, wonderfully done by Peter Capaldi) "What were the Prime Minister's actual words?"

"Well," says hapless minister for Home Affairs, realising even as the feeble words emerge from his lips that he's comprehensively stuffed, "he said it was the sort of thing we should be doing."

Who's to blame here? Hugh has been guilty of what's variously called "exceeding his authority", "jumping the gun" or "going off message" - the wide choice of terms indicates how common it is. The PM has played the equally familiar trick of both offering and withholding support at one and the same time - deploying what you might call the "I agree with you up to a point" leadership strategy.

Does it happen in school? You bet. How many times, as a leader, have you nodded thoughtfully at your team and said those very words: "This is the sort of thing we should be doing"? And then how many times have you been taken aback by the nature of the detailed plans that someone has come up with? It's the age-old story of the drama teacher who overestimates your enthusiasm for the avant-garde, or the outdoor activities specialist who assumes you really meant her to break the ice so the whole party could swim, or the deputy with the NPQH who plans to abolish two layers of the hierarchy.

The Prime Minister, of course (in the programme, not in real life - perish the thought) is at such an exalted level that he's insulated from any fall-out consequent on his pusillanimous lack of clarity. Not only that, but - somewhat like God - he has an earthly mediator ready to convince the troops that everything is down to their own frailty. It's likely that you, on the other hand, do not have protection of that quality and that at least some of the consequent egg will be on your own face.

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