How Prime Ministers use their Cabinets

The Economist is making waves with its front cover again. A few years after its eye-catching, lurid yellow mock-up of David Cameron as a punk (complete with Mohican), its more simple – and more cutting – description of the Prime Minister as ‘Theresa Maybe’ has got people talking.

The newspaper duly ran a critical leader of Mrs May, but actually it is the longer briefing on Mrs May’s first six months of Government that is much more interesting. It summarises not just what the newish Government has done in its first half year (not much) but goes into how Government is actually run. This is important, not simply because it’s a matter of great interest for political nerds like me, but also because how a Government is run can dictate how successful it is – especially at managing large and difficult problems such as, say, how Britain leaves the European Union.

The Economist’s piece comes shortly after the publication of a fascinating new book by political historian Sir Anthony Seldon. The book (called The Cabinet Office 1916 – 2016) is supposedly about the Cabinet Office, marking a century since Lloyd George started to professionalise how the British Government’s highest body made its decisions. But it’s the subtitle of the book “The Birth of Modern Government” that is much more instructive, because this is really a book about how Prime Ministers, especially recent Prime Ministers, choose to run their Governments – and what this meant and means for getting policy done.

Compared to her predecessors, in some way Mrs May is an admirable Prime Minister. The Economist piece paints her as Prime Minister intent on using her Cabinet (and the much lesser known Cabinet Committees) to a fuller degree than any of her immediate predecessors bar one. Mrs May is portrayed as brisk, business-like, perhaps a little cold and unapproachable. But the constant cry of Cabinet Secretaries and other senior civil servants that echoes throughout Sir Anthony’s book is the need for politicians to be more formal. If the machinery of Government is not used properly then policies are not tested to destruction, poorly implemented and disasters ensue.

The prime example of this is Iraq, where Tony Blair – the archetypal sofa government Prime Minister – simply ignored the resources of Whitehall available to him and catastrophe ensued. But the same problem can be seen in other, small policy failures that featured throughout the similarly relaxed governments of David Cameron: the NHS reforms in his early years for example.

So as a way of handling big, difficult problems, Mrs May’s use of the Cabinet seems sensible. It is also politically sound. The one predecessor that relied on his Cabinet in the same way that Mrs May did was John Major. He too had a small majority, Ministers on different sides of the European divide and a hopelessly divided party. Sir Anthony ponders whether the very fact that Mr Major survived as Prime Minister for seven years, against all the odds, was because he involved his whole Cabinet in Government: and so bound them into collective responsibility. Mrs May’s appointment of leading Brexiteers to senior positions in Government would suggest that she has, consciously or not, learnt this lesson.

Yet The Economist piece also points to problems with Mrs May’s style of governing. Her reliance on two close advisors, her co-Chiefs of Staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, is hardly new: every Prime Minister since Walpole virtually has had a close advisor he or she over-relies on. Yet each of these advisors comes with problems. Sir Anthony tells how the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell repeatedly warned Gordon Brown (whose Government sounds scarily dysfunctional) about bringing Damien McBride into Number 10. Lord O’Donnell was right. Similarly, Mrs Thatcher’s foreign policy advisor, Charles Powell, supposedly a neutral civil servant, was far, far too close to the Prime Minister to give her useful advice.

More to the point, for all Mrs May’s sensible reversion to Cabinet Government, business is getting blocked by the Prime Minister’s reliance on just two advisors. As the Cabinet Office history makes clear, there is simply too much paperwork at the top of Government for one or two men or women to deal with. Even the Cabinet Secretary has struggled over the years with the responsibilities of the post.

So the Prime Minister is part of the way there, but unless she can use Whitehall properly she’ll struggle to handle Brexit – already the impossible job. Perhaps the current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, is tempted to slip a copy of Sir Anthony’s slim but compelling book into the Prime Ministerial red box.