“Bring back Cabinet government!”

Posted by Richard D North under Dare to be dull / Post-Bureaucratic world on 7 September 2009

There is fresh and useful interest in improving the way a Prime Minister should engage with the Cabinet, and through the Cabinet with the Civil Service. By the way, hardly anyone is being too nostalgic for an imagined golden yesteryear. Here are some of the signs.

(1) As the Financial Times notes, the four most recent Cabinet Secretaries (that is: the head of the Civil Service and head of the Cabinet Office) have all expressed concern at the recent drift of power into Number 10 (and the special advisers there and in ministries) and away from Cabinet and the Civil Service. (The FT mourns the process and suggests a plausible future.)  This is most clear in their evidence to a House of Lords committee inquiry into the “Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government“.

(2) It is worth being a little sharp about their relatively new expression of concern. As The Economist points out, they let the situation drift that way (and maybe connived at it) when they were in office:

“all four, under first Lady Thatcher and then Mr Blair and Mr Brown, went along with the reforms they now deplore.”

(3) Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s politically-appointed chief of staff, has submitted a thoughtful account of how the right amount of power could be returned to the formal institutions of the Civil Service (in the form of the Cabinet Office) and the Cabinet whilst accepting modern realities. He believes the Cabinet can’t be the place where detailed policy is discussed, but where it can and should be signed-off. He believes that the Cabinet Office must (a) stay very close to Number 10 and (b) co-ordinate and chivvy the rest of Whitehall but not second guess or over-ride it.

This seems logical enough and would be a recipe for strong ministers reporting to Cabinet for collective authority under the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, for his or her part, would know that through the Cabinet Office there was a coherent understanding across the whole system.

(4) It remains wholly unclear whether the political class has understood how important this all is administratively or electorall. David Cameron send very mixed signals and it is completely unclear who might lead the Labour party in the near future. Unfortunately, the track record of senior civil servants has been very poor: until very recently they haven’t pressed their own claim to have a voice in the matter. 

(5) The Institute for Government may be just the ticket. It may succeed in being where reforms can be discussed and pressed home.

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