Government and Politics

Cymraeg

Is cabinet government back?

Introduction


David Cameron came to office promising to restore the cabinet to its central role. This article tests the claim that under Cameron cabinet government has been restored and that it again plays a central role in decision-making.


Cameron came to office in May 2010 promising that decisions would no longer be made in secretive inner circles which bypassed the full cabinet. The cabinet would be restored to its textbook role at the heart of government. As Anthony Seldon has argued, 'Cameron was...clear that his premiership would see a return to formal cabinet government'.


Why did Cameron want to revive cabinet?


Cameron the anti-Blair

David Cameron came to power having famously declared that he was the 'heir to Blair'. Cameron certainly sought to emulate Blair's election-winning machine. However, in one crucial area at least, he tried to distance his premiership from Blair's. He came to power promising a return to cabinet government. He rejected Blair's 'sofa government' style of decision making and also sought to distance himself from Gordon Brown's chaotic style of leadership. Under Cameron the cabinet would discuss issues of substance, and advice would be sought from the traditional civil service. He would be merely a chairman of the (cabinet) board, rather than an all-powerful chief executive.


Cameron's revolutionary zeal

Another reason for Cameron's public support of cabinet and its committees was that on coming to power he unleashed what the author Andrew Rawnsley has called a 'Maoist' revolution across the whole range of government departments. Cameron took seriously Blair's own regret that he had not acted radically enough in his first term (1997–2001). Cameron's government was quickly absorbed in a flurry of activity in almost every department.


One might have expected this 'revolutionary zeal' to have led Cameron to copy Blair and take control from the centre as a way of pushing these reforms through. However, Cameron's approach was to delegate and give cabinet ministers surprising latitude to initiate and develop policy on their own. For much of the first year of the new government, the dominant picture was of radically reforming ministers enjoying the freedom to run their own departments.


Cameron in coalition

The most important reason for the return to cabinet government was the reality of coalition politics. Cameron and Clegg struck up an immediate relationship, which translated into a close working partnership at the heart of government. The reality of having to work with Liberal Democrat ministers meant that discussion, debate and negotiation were crucial to the survival of the Conservative-led administration. There were Lib Dem ministers across Whitehall and five in the cabinet itself.


Senior civil servants quickly adopted the verb, 'to coalitionise', to describe the process by which decisions were made. Both parties would discuss proposals in a highly collaborative manner before they could be formally adopted as government policy. This necessitated the resurrection of formality at the heart of government. The existence of the first peacetime coalition since the 1920s was the crucial driver towards a new collegiate style of decision making.


The return of formality


There is little doubt that cabinet has been restored to a place of public prominence. As the respected Constitution Unit at University College London reported in mid-2011, 'Cabinet and its committees have been greatly revived under the new government'. For instance, specific and rigorous steps are taken to ensure that collective agreement is maintained:

  • all papers for cabinet committees must state what has been done to ensure collective approval

  • the policy must be checked against the coalition agreement

  • the chair and deputy chair of the committee (always one from each party) must have signed the paper off


The cabinet itself now meets every Tuesday for up to 2 hours — a far cry from Tony Blair's 45 minute affairs. Given its two-party composition cabinet meetings are said to involve genuine discussion of policy, with the prime minister always keen to listen particularly carefully to Liberal Democrat ministers. In the lead-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010 the full cabinet discussed proposed spending cuts at least nine times. Furthermore, the private negotiations over specific cuts between the Treasury and individual departments were overseen by both the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, and Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.


Senior civil servants are said to be delighted with the return to formality. Cameron relied heavily on Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, in a way that Blair and Brown never did. Cameron and O'Donnell met before every cabinet meeting and O'Donnell was said to be closer to the prime minister than any cabinet secretary in the past 20 years.


The role of coalition committees


However, the picture of cabinet revival is complicated by the argument that the government operates at the day-to-day level by coalition committee, not cabinet government. In the early months of the coalition some commentators argued that real power lay with these newly established committees. In May 2010 Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome.com suggested that, 'the real business of policy prioritisation takes place in smaller, more focused Cabinet Committees'. The most important of these was to be the 'coalition committee' (nicknamed the 'quarterback of the coalition'). Its purpose from the start was to meet weekly and manage the implementation of the Coalition Agreement. It consisted of top-ranking members of the cabinet; five Tories and five Lib Dems, including David Cameron and Nick Clegg. This committee was designed to give strategic direction to the government.


However, since May 2011 the coalition committee has only met twice and has clearly not played the central role envisaged for it by some, possibly including the party leaders themselves. According to the Constitution Unit, 'Coalition issues are resolved in informal meetings, not cabinet or its committees'.


The enduring appeal of informality


So, Cameron came to power with the intention of restoring cabinet government. For this he has been widely praised. However, on closer inspection a more nuanced picture emerges and the latest academic evidence is that Cameron operates within a complicated network of formal and, crucially, informal groups.


As the prime minister has become accustomed to power, the attractions of informal decision making have at least partly re-emerged. This is the result of several factors. First, policy discussions between two quite different parties can potentially slow down decision making to the point of paralysis. For this reason alone there might be good reason to get policy initiated and debated in smaller, more informal groupings. A second possible reason is that this is Cameron's opposition style brought into government. As leader of the opposition, Cameron was well known for developing strategy and policy with a small clique of trusted colleagues, including Steve Hilton and George Osborne. Cameron may be reverting to type as he develops a more personal and informal style of decision-making. There seems little doubt that almost all significant policy brokerage occurs outside the formal machinery of cabinet.


The hidden wiring


The most important informal decision-making forums are outlined in Box 1. The thread tying these informal forums together of course is the existence of the coalition itself. The need to keep both parties onside, particularly at the leadership level, has meant that the government has developed a range of informal and innovative methods of ensuring unity.

 

One by-product of this is said to be that the cabinet itself under Cameron is effectively divided into two spheres: a Conservative sphere controlled by the prime minister and a Lib Dem sphere controlled by Nick Clegg. At least one commentator has argued that David Cameron is the first prime minister to willingly relinquish control of part of his cabinet. Nick Clegg is said to manage the Lib Dem members of the cabinet, while Cameron controls the Tory side. This may have been evident in early 2011 when the Lib Dem energy secretary, Chris Huhne, found himself in trouble over a traffic offence. It was said to have been Nick Clegg who questioned him, rather than David Cameron, in a nod to what might be called the 'dual fiefdom' cabinet. The highly unusual political partnership at the heart of the current cabinet means that the normal arrangements for making decisions have been transformed.


The next stage: the return of No 10?


However, the return of cabinet (alongside a multitude of informal arrangements) may not be the end of the story. In February 2011, Downing Street announced the strengthening of the No 10 policy unit (deliberately wound down when Cameron came to office as part of his rejection of Blair's 'control-freakery'). The prime minister announced the appointment of various special advisors who would head up a strengthened centre and provide greater oversight of departments.

 

Following a number of policy mishaps and consequent U-turns Cameron has partially reversed his preference for giving ministers considerable latitude over policy development and communication. The most high profile of these interventions from No 10 was the 'pause' in the NHS reform bill in spring 2011. The government's plans for the NHS, which had been developed and communicated by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, shuddered to a halt following a backlash from healthcare professionals and a media storm. David Cameron felt the need to step in and take control of the government's message after being accused of not possessing sufficient grip of the policies being developed by his own ministers. The problems around NHS reform had followed previous so-called 'U-turns' on the sale of public forests, school sports and school milk. Though Cameron may still envisage himself as the chairman of the (cabinet) board he appears to have moved further towards acting like a chief executive.

 

Cameron's style of leadership, combined with the flurry of activity across numerous government departments, was always a potential recipe for trouble. In an era when the prime minister is expected to be in command of policy across government, Cameron's extensive delegation got the government into trouble. Interestingly, he took literally Tony Blair's warning not to waste his first term and to move quickly to introduce various reforms. However, he missed another lesson from the Blair experience — the need for No 10 to closely monitor Whitehall departments. It was his acknowledgement of this second lesson in early 2011 that led No 10 to 'man mark' departments to avoid further policy mistakes. The lesson would not be lost on Tony Blair; Cameron may be shifting a little closer to the Labour leader's style of governing after all.