Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cabinet Government Must Return Under Cameron

"In my view the Cabinet is not the right body in which to attempt to make difficult decisions. Since at least the late Seventies the Cabinet has been used to ratify decisions rather than to take them."

Those are the words of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff. Doesn't that tell you all you need to know about the way the country has been governed over the last twelve years. I don't detect that anything has changed since Gordon Brown took over. I do so hope that things will be different under David Cameron and we can get back to proper cabinet government. The Cabinet is indeed there to take decisions, not just ratify them.

But let's not just put all the blame on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A Cabinet is only as strong as the people appointed to it. If they are willing to lie down and have their stomachs tickled, rather than challenge and debate, then it is they who should receive our opprobrium, rather than Blair and Brown.

Powell says Cabinet Government has been run this way since the late 1970s. This is complete rubbish. No one who knows anything about the Major government could seriously suggest that his Cabinet was run in this manner. And there are a lot of myths about the way Margaret Thatcher ran her Cabinet. I accept that in her latter years there was a tendency to treat it as an instrument of ratification, but you only have to read the memoirs of her ministers and the academic analyses of the time to know that there were some fairly fearsome arguments. Just because she led from the front, that didn't mean she always got her way.

Conservative Cabinet Ministers need to start as they mean to go on if and when they take over. Perhaps they all need a lecture from Professor Peter Hennessy in the art of proper cabinet government.

25 comments:

Paul Halsall said...

Unless Powell was speaking very crudely in using the phrase "since the late seventies", I suspect he was including Mrs. Thatcher's time as well.

unseen said...

something like 25 ministers can attend cabinet these days. Can 25 people meeting for an hour a week really take the decisions to run a country? My experience in meetings makes it seem extremely unlikely.

Snappy said...

The manner in which Cameron runs the Conservative Party - listening to the party as a whole, putting the parliamentary party at the heart of decision-making and not just relying on a close cabal of four or five people around him - would tend to suggest he's the ideal man to bring back cabinet government.

Yes, I'm being ironic.

Anonymous said...

Of course he was. We know now that there was not cabinet government under Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair. Perhaps not as bad under Brown but it does certainly need to return to how it was under Callaghan, Wilson and Heath.

Anonymous said...

You may not like it but if Cameron listened to the Tory party as a whole in the country he would not get elected. The views of the average Tory member would not sit well in a Tory manifesto to get elected.
It's the same for Labour. The average Labour member would renationalise and that would not get them relected.

Henry said...

Peter Hennessy would I'm sure concur that there have in fact been many major decesions taken by a very small circle of people at top of Government of vital importance without reference to Cabinet stretching back to the post war years- the decesion for Britain to become a nuclear power being a prime example.

Whilst I'd agree that proper reference should have been made to cabinet in these and all key issues, its not true to say that the tendency you highlight is just a product of the Blair Government.

Roger Thornhill said...

"If they are willing to lie down and have their stomachs tickled, rather than challenge and debate, then..."

That presumes they were not on their bellies to begin with. New Labour, being on your belly, submitting to the Collective Soviet is a pre-requisite.

Under Cameron? Jeez, the man wants to control the price of my beer, so to expect him to truly operate Cabinent Government is one hope beyond delusion...

Ben said...

Major's government is a fine example of cabinet government - and why it doesn't work in practice. 20 or more people meeting for a couple of hours a week cannot make decisions effectively and they cannot respond to events.

Much as I disagree with Cameron's polices - such as they exist - I recognize his ability. There is simply no way he will return to a more traditional cabinet government.

londonmuslim said...

anything that keeps michael gove from decision making is fine with me

Anonymous said...

I doubt whether consensual politics is due for a comeback. Sometimes, Shadow Ministers only find out about a policy which falls within their remit once it is complete, and because it has been formed without the knowledge built up by the Shadow Minister, it is not always the most sensible policy.

I don't think this is a judgement on those Shadow Ministers' inability to form policy. Rather, I think it's the case that there is a level of arrogance at the top which says: 'that experience is not required'.

Mark Reckons said...

I don't understand why you think we shouldn't put all the blame on Blair and Brown. They appointed their respective cabinets and set the tone so surely they have to take the flak if they are supine?

Jimmy said...

"Doesn't that tell you all you need to know about the way the country has been governed over the last twelve years."

Not unless you think the late seventies were twelve years ago, no,

Bill Quango MP said...

To be fair Short and Cook tried to make a stand in Tony's time.
Since then I guess the closest thing to A dissenting Voice has been Alistair saying he won't go from the treasury.

Events dear boy, events said...

Iain, your memory bank needs a refresh. Fundamental decisions have never been taken by the full Cabinet. I sight two watershed moments in post war history. One, the decision to build a nuclear bomb and two, the decision to devalue in 1967. Neither were taken by the full Cabinet.

Now, take the Falklands. Thatcher was advised at the time, principally by Frank Cooper and Macmillan, to form a small War Cabinet. It was this group that took all the decisions rather than the full Cabinet.

Hennessy, who I have much time for, is too much of a purest on these matters. What should happen is the return to the formalised structure of taking decisions through Cabinet committees to the full Cabinet.

A meeting of 25 people in any walk of life can never be an effective vehicle for decision making.

Anonymous said...

North Norfolk PPC Trevor Ivory I know wants to see a return to Cabinet Government.

Here is his Facebook group and Twitter:

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2739978611

http://twitter.com/trevorivory

True Belle said...

'I do so hope that things will be different under David Cameron and we can get back to proper cabinet '

I detect a little bit of doubt and a small sigh somewhere!

Anonymous said...

'This has now become a very good day to bury bad news.... Councillors' expenses, anyone ?'

Anonymous said...

I do not think there as era when the cabinet as a whole took decisions.

Unsworth said...

I thought Hennessey's evidence to the Lords Inquiry on the Cabinet Office was real entertainment. He certainly looked and sounded a lot sharper than his inquisitors.

Powell is a devious shit. End of.

Libertarian said...

Nothing good or effective was EVER run by a committee.

As anyone who has ever sat on one for any reason in any organisation knows.

neil craig said...

Whether cabinet exercises its constitutional role will depend very much on whether it is made up of people whose powerbase is friendship with Cameron or being generally respects within the party. Currently the Shadow cabinet looks very much like the former with so many of the "big beasts" on the back benches. This is one reason I am glad Ken Clarke is in there - I disagree with him over Europe but he is extremely competent & entirely his own man.

If the post election cabinet is not drawn from all the talents I would like to thimk the 1922 Committee would firmly express their displeasure, as happened in 1922.

This is not a problem for Labour since, despite my declining opinion of Brown he clearly embodies, along with Mandy, all the competnet people in cabinet.

Old Codger said...

"I do so hope that things will be different under David Cameron and we can get back to proper cabinet government."

I do hope you are right Ian but somehow I doubt it. He claims to want to be the heir to Blair and, apart from not being anyway near as good as Blair, his actions todate suggest that he will indeed be a poor copy of Tone.

Quietzapple said...

Sounds bogus to me.

Most PMs take some decisions in a very small group, such as Attlee's decision to proceed with the bomb.

Other decisions are taken by the cabinet, others subject to argument in cabinet, others may lead to a debilitating resignation, as per Hezza and Westland.

People like everything simple, and Powell may well feel that Blair held the reins too tightly too often.

On the other hand Brown had a very free hand as Chancellor.

Major and Lamont's "steering" of Black Wednesday was viewed by Clarke as an outsider, not much cabinet input there. Curiously Cameron, as Lamont's bagman/advisor may have made quite contribution, if he was responsible for the phrase Lamont uttered about "green shoots" as unemployment soared, which led to his sacking.

Lamont was not invited to join the big bottomed committee Cameron set up to advise Osbrone . . . .

There is every indication that Cameron would have an inner cabinet of familars, including Osborne, Spelman and a few others, not all politicians in parliament. Plus ca change . . .

Horshamite said...

Some thoughts. First I agree with those who have said 25 people is too large a group. So, let's reduce the Cabinet by at least a third. There are too many hangers on - there for status rather than need.

Second, Cabinet will only be as good as those who organise its business. Unless ideas/options are discussed at an early stage before being finally worked up then the Cabinet is left with a choice of accepting a proposal or having a potentially damaging row.

Collective agreement should be sought on main policy issues, not detail, and designed to ensure the Government operates as a coherent whole.

If a party has a clear manifesto then the first period in office should not exercise the Cabinet too much.

Horshamite said...

Some thoughts. First I agree with those who have said 25 people is too large a group. So, let's reduce the Cabinet by at least a third. There are too many hangers on - there for status rather than need.

Second, Cabinet will only be as good as those who organise its business. Unless ideas/options are discussed at an early stage before being finally worked up then the Cabinet is left with a choice of accepting a proposal or having a potentially damaging row.

Collective agreement should be sought on main policy issues, not detail, and designed to ensure the Government operates as a coherent whole.

If a party has a clear manifesto then the first period in office should not exercise the Cabinet too much.