Strategic Centre to Replace Cabinet Government?

by ukcivilservant

Here’s the problem:-  Prime Minister Johnson is said to have asked the Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, to say who was in charge of implementing a COVID-19 delivery plan? One observer recalled: “There was just silence.  He looked over at Sedwill and said, ‘Is it you?’  Sedwill said, ‘No, I think it’s you, Prime Minister.’”

This exchange must seem extraordinary to anyone outside Whitehall, but it reflects the reality of Cabinet government.  Government in the UK is a system, not a command structure.  The Cabinet are meant to be a team of equals.  Each team member takes responsibility when the ball, so to speak, is passed to them.  But there is no organising mind, least of all in the Cabinet Office.  Its main function is to resolve disputes between the players. 

This generally works well.  Most important decisions can be taken following discussions between Cabinet Ministers, refereed as necessary by the Prime Minister or in Cabinet Committee.  And it is usually obvious which department needs to be responsible for which delivery programs.

And it has sometimes worked OK during the COVID-19 crisis.  Neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet Secretary needed to tell the Chancellor and his officials how to (or indeed whether to) organise a furlough scheme.  Nor did they need to tell Matt Hancock and his officials how to manage the NHS so as to cope with the first spike in COVID deaths.

But it all clearly fell apart when it came to lockdown and related policies.  Here, the Health Secretary, the Home Secretary (police, civil liberties), the Transport Secretary, the Business Secretary, and the Chancellor all needed to work together.   One of them needed to take charge, but no-one did so.  Mark Sedwill appears to have thought that the Prime Minster should have taken charge, but that is hardly Mr Johnson’s style.  Mr Johnson appears to have thought that officials should resolve all the inter-departmental tensions for him.  But he forgot that, while officials could certainly provide information analysis and advice, they couldn’t make what were bound to be highly controversial decisions.  If the delivery plan was so complex that it could not be led by a single Secretary of State, then there was no alternative but for it to be led by the Prime Minister himself, in effect managing his Cabinet colleagues.  He will have looked in vain for robust structures and levers to pull.  They aren’t normally needed, and they couldn’t be magicked out of thin air in a hurry.  Put simply, the UK government does not have anything approaching a strategic centre.

Should we therefore switch to a more Presidential system?  Or at least a more strategic centre as was recommended by the Institute for Government in its ‘Shaping Up’ report  ten years ago?

It would certainly speed decision making.  Ministers and officials can move very swiftly if they don’t need to consult other departments.  But it can take an age to get others to agree to even innocuous suggestions.  They have priorities of their own, and their own stakeholders to worry about.  Even worse, one Minister can be very unwilling to support another Minister’s great initiative, as they are probably both vying for the next promotion.

A strategic centre would also probably help to ensure that resources could be swiftly moved from one department to another where they are more urgently needed.  This is currently a very slow process, given Ministers’ and Permanent Secretaries’ natural reluctance to lose staff.  Even worse, they will if pressed eventually offer to lose staff that they don’t want to keep.

More generally, a strategic centre would weaken the sometimes excessive loyalty of senior civil servants to their particular political boss. 

Above all, though, isn’t it crazy that the Prime Minister doesn’t have a powerful team to help him monitor progress on his key priorities, to intervene when progress has stalled, and make those all-important trade-offs which will, if unaddressed, lead to endless and fruitless debate?  (Social care, for instance.)

Keen Whitehall observers will be aware that Dominic Cummings is prominent in supporting what is pejoratively called ‘centralisation’, including ‘COBRA style committees’ where Ministers and officials would work together on projects.  I can do no better than quote Jill Rutter’s reaction:

“He’s going to hate this from an ex civil servant – but I think it’s a pretty good idea..  Cabinet committees are pretty useless by and large with bored Ministers reading out departmental speaking notes usually written by junior, quite bored civil servants desperately trying to dig up a departmental angle on an issue of which they know little – or conversely fuming at a last minute ‘bounce’ on an issue in which their department has a big interest.  Ministers are expected to pay departmental roles in such committees and leave their broader political judgement at home.  This is the system that nodded through the Lansley health reforms.”

The problem is that strategic centres and COBRA-style committees would inevitably and intentionally reduce the power and influence of individual members of the Cabinet.  Much the same can be said for already announced decisions to have Downing Street control all government data, and to have all Special Advisers report to Dominic Cummings.  George Yarrow has pointed out that Adam Smith would not have approved of making a significant change to Ministers’ responsibilities, nor would it have been welcomed by previous administrations’ ‘big beasts’.  Former Chancellor Sajid Javid objected, of course, and was summarily dismissed. 

So we are left with a Cabinet which is entirely subservient to the Prime Minister, and presumably perfectly content to work within a command structure rather than within a Cabinet of equals.  It will be interesting to see if ‘centralisation’ continues and if so whether we then experience significantly better government, though some would say that we could hardly have a worse experience than recent years.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government