Lord Willetts is President of the Advisory Council and Intergenerational Centre of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.
Boris Johnson’s proposed reorganisation of 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office is being seen entirely through the prism of partygate. But there is more to it than that.
These two institutions at the very centre of government do not appear to be operating the way they should. This is not simply a matter of the PM’s personal style – the structures should be sufficiently flexible to adjust to the distinctive ways of working of different leaders. The problem is deeper than that.
First, a bit of constitutional doctrine. There is a locked door – and now its modern equivalent – between No 10 and the Cabinet Office. This is not just for security. It also signifies the difference between the office of the Prime Minister and the office serving the Cabinet as a whole. Blurring this distinction as if it is all a single entity weakens government it does not strengthen it.
On one side are the PM’s own staff. When I worked in Margaret Thatcher’s No 10 Policy Unit we were very aware of this responsibility. We might give her our personal advice but once we were dealing with anyone else we should be setting out her views – and if she had not yet reached a view on a particular policy option we should make this clear.
The cardinal sin was to present our personal views as the PM’s if they were not. There are now many more people in No 10. And it is no longer always clear if they really are transmitting the PM’s own views or not.
On the other side of the door is the Cabinet Office which serves Cabinet and all its committees. Some key committees will be chaired by the PM but many will not. The Cabinet Office’s job is to identify all the different departmental angles on an issue and ensure they are all heard before a decision is taken.
This may sound bureaucratic and slow – sometimes it is. But it is also key to good government. The media narrative all too often presents every decision as if it is right v wrong. If only! Most decisions get to high level cabinet committees because they are difficult trade-offs between good things which are all government objectives.
It is important to bring out what these trade-offs are. That involves government departmental ministers playing the roles allotted to them. I learned this lesson very early on when I was a Treasury official working on the Thatcher government’s first public spending round. Keith Joseph was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and so committed to Thatcherism that he agreed to all the cuts we were asking for with no argument. At last we thought we had a proper departmental minister who was on our side.
But within a year the Government was in an unexpected political crisis as every steel plant in Britain was due to close as all funding for British Steel was stopping. Ministers were taken by surprise and an expensive ad hoc rescue package was cobbled together to slow the rate of closure and keep one or two open. The original decision had been taken without enough proper assessment of the implications because nobody in the room was willing to warn of them.
The Cabinet Office exists to ensure that trade-offs are properly analysed– even if the PM may think he or she already knows what they want. There is often a key trusted figure – Willie Whitelaw for Thatcher or Damian Green and then David Lidington for Theresa May – to chair these discussions.
That role in turn depends on the Cabinet Office being trusted by all the players. But if the Cabinet Office itself becomes a player it loses that role. And now it is accruing so many different special units and operational responsibilities it becomes the shaper of policy. Some of these Cabinet Office responsibilities can themselves become drivers of bureaucracy – Whitehall departments end up spending a lot of time dealing with reviews and information requests initiated by the Cabinet Office.
Johnson’s own style of government needs a strong effective Cabinet Office with clear but limited role and commanding the trust of respected departmental ministers. And to move from constitutional doctrine to practical politics; Prime Ministers fall when they lose the confidence of their Cabinet colleagues.
So instead of bringing together No 10 and Cabinet Office in a single department, it might be better to do the opposite. Carve out a distinctive small No 10 operation which has Johnson’s voice and his personal priorities. Then keep the Cabinet Office separate serving all of Cabinet. It should build and respect strong departmental ministers.
They should then give a sense of momentum to the Government as a whole as they get on with things. And they should be delivering big thoughtful speeches explaining what they are trying to achieve instead of being bogged down in negotiating slots in the No 10 grid which can get in the way of proper planning of such interventions.
Its preoccupation with the theme of the week and specific narrowly policy statements can be an obstacle to ever getting these big arguments across. Then the stature of Cabinet ministers would rise and the PM would find he had what any PM needs in difficult times – a strong Cabinet supporting him.