Ferdinand Mount

Is the main purpose of the cabinet secretary to frustrate the PM?

Is the main purpose of the cabinet secretary to frustrate the PM?
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The minister’s private secretary wrote to another cabinet minister about the previous day’s cabinet meeting:

They cannot agree about what occurred. There must have been some decision, as Bright’s resignation shows. My chief has told me to ask you what the devil was decided, for he be damned if he knows. Will you ask Mr G. [Gladstone] in more conventional and less pungent terms?

That was in 1882. Twenty years later, the fog still reigned. Sir Robert Morant, the driving force behind Balfour’s 1902 Education Act, wrote:

Impossible to find out after a cabinet meeting what has actually been the decision. Salisbury does not seem to know or care, and the various ministers who do care give me contradictory versions.

As late as 1915, when the horrors of the Great War were approaching their worst, an exasperated Curzon (used to the well-oiled bureaucracy of Calcutta) complained:

There was no agenda, no order of business… no record whatever was kept of our proceedings… The cabinet often had the very haziest notion as to what its decisions were.

Looking back later, he declared that the system had ‘irretrievably broken down’.

Enter Lloyd George and with him the brisk, implacable figure of Lt-Col Maurice Hankey, late of the Royal Marines. It was Hankey who in 1916 created the cabinet office, based on his experience as secretary of the committee of imperial defence. These two centenary histories celebrate ‘the birth of modern government’, to quote the subtitle of the indefatigable Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington and author of numerous biographies of prime ministers. Or do they? Ian Beesley, himself an old cabinet office hand, tells us at the outset of his massive official history of six cabinet secretaries (Seldon covers all 11 in half the space), that the story shows how ‘the cabinet office has matured into a crucial driver of government policy’. But has it?

As we tiptoe through the green baize door down the corridor that links 10 Downing Street to the cabinet office, we discover a rather less triumphant, more nuanced (a favourite word in these silken purlieus), not to say disturbing picture. Seldon himself admits that there is ‘an unresolved ambiguity’ between the cabinet secretary’s responsibilities to the prime minister and his responsibilities to the cabinet as a whole. More unnerving still, Seldon says that ‘the precise significance of each cabinet secretary has ultimately been a mystery’. What exactly is he for? What precisely does he do?

Three-quarters of a century after Hankey took charge, the Economist was complaining that John Major was failing to deal with ‘a system with a hole in the middle’. Civil servants themselves began to talk about ‘the hole at the centre of the mint’ in coping with almost any issue, from Europe to foot and mouth.

And were the outcomes anything to write home about? Sir Brian Cubbon, who had been a permanent secretary for 12 years, reflected in 1994:

No one could claim, whatever their party political position, that government decisions in the last 30 years have been of a high standard… Britain now stands out amongst comparable European countries, and perhaps among liberal democracies as a whole, as a state unusually prone to making large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes.

Was there really nothing to be learnt from the way they did things in the White House, or the Elysée, or the Bundeskanzleramt?

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As for cabinet government, Robin Butler, the most open-minded and wide awake of cabinet secretaries, complained after his bruising by the Blair mob that ‘cabinet had reverted to what it was in the late 18th or early 19th century — a meeting of political colleagues at which the issues of the day were informally reported or discussed’. Even as a talking shop, the cabinet had become a shrunken and sporadic body. Blair held only 30-odd meetings a year, each lasting no more than 45 minutes. The real decisions were taken during what Beesley nicely calls ‘Blair’s running levée’, held on the notorious sofa or in his den, with telephones jangling and no notes taken. Even under Thatcher, Nigel Lawson remembered cabinet meetings as the moment during the week when he could relax, because nothing really important happened.

One place where decisions were most definitely not taken was the cabinet office. Beesley tells us that

the central contention of this history is that the first duty of the cabinet secretary is to make ministers look in control of events, farsighted and wise, governing in the interests of the nation as a whole… the processes of government must appear rational and smooth, no matter what is going on beneath the surface. The more these processes can be kept secret, the better the chances of success.

Smooth is the word, and one that cabinet secretaries are happy to use. Sir Edward Bridges, son of the poet laureate Robert and cabinet secretary between 1937 and 1946, told the Fulton committee on the civil service that ‘my concern was not with policy, but to see that the general business of the war cabinet ran smoothly’. This is the Gospel according to Sir Humphrey. Senior civil servants would make any excuse in order to get home in time for Yes, Minister.

Now and then Seldon ticks off this or that cabinet secretary for promoting his own views, as Hankey repeatedly did during his long, though not uncontested, reign. But the narrative tends to suggest that the cabinet secretary’s finest hours were when he did his own thing. For example, when Hankey stepped in to stem the terrible losses of Allied shipping by persuading Jellicoe to adopt the convoy system, and again when he persuaded the cabinet to abandon the Dardanelles operation (which they had been bounced into with little warning by an ebullient Churchill during an all-day cabinet, which Asquith spent much of writing flirtatious letters to Venetia Stanley).

Robert Armstrong in his day was never better employed than in his tireless talks with his Irish oppo Dermot Nally, which produced the Anglo-Irish Agreement. He was acting on his own initiative, not without Thatcher’s knowledge but without her active engagement. Again, in 2010 nobody instructed Gus O’Donnell to midwife the coalition (there’s nothing about it in the manuals), but he brought it off with great tact and cunning.

Instead, cabinet secretaries have spent aeons of time on housekeeping tasks, many of them fruitless: inquiring into leaks — 30-odd inquiries a year in the 1990s, mostly abandoned either because the culprit couldn’t be found or because he was a cabinet minister and preventing or emasculating the memoirs of old spies and politicians, usually in vain, most humiliatingly in Armstrong’s trip to Australia to squash Spycatcher, which resulted only in the revival of Burke’s immortal phrase ‘economical with the truth’.

Trying to reform the intelligence services was an equally unprofitable task. Among the things the JIC failed to foresee were the falls of Khrushchev and the Shah, the Biafra breakaway, the Chinese nuclear test, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the twin towers (on 9/11, the entire staff of the Civil Contingencies Unit were away on a team-building exercise in Yorkshire). One event the JIC did predict was Argentina invading the Falklands, but unfortunately they were a few months out in the timing.

Much time too was spent in resisting demands for greater openness, in restricting access to papers and meetings, and in denying the government access to the papers of earlier governments, thus failing to prevent it from making the same mistake twice. Significantly, this latter restriction has been lifted in wartime, when it could have cost lives. In general, alas, war seems to be good for the quality of governance: it speeds up decision-making, makes the unthinkable possible and eases the hiring of outside talent. Equally alas, the outbreak of peace usually sees a reversion to normality, as the old habits of secrecy and anonymity and turf-hugging resume their insidious grip.

Ideally, the average cabinet secretary would like to see the civil service as hermetically sealed as a pot of jam, with the flies left to buzz around on the outside. If irregular advisers cannot be entirely excluded, then they must be starved of the oxygen of information. Wilson’s economic adviser, Tommy Balogh, was not allowed to see the papers of the Public Expenditure Committee. Thatcher’s ditto, Alan Walters, was denied the briefing for economic summits. Sir John Hunt tried to prevent Wilson’s newly formed policy unit from seeing the cabinet office briefs or even from talking to the private secretaries on the floor below.

Even if the blighters did get in, they must be forcibly prevented from taking jobs which properly belonged to career civil servants. The Powell brothers, Charles and Jonathan, advisers to Thatcher and Blair respectively, were initially blocked from official nomination as principal private secretaries, although both had already served 20 years in the diplomatic service. Sir Richard Wilson blocked that nimble hoofer, Ed Balls, from being officially confirmed as Gordon Brown’s chief economic adviser: ‘He might hold the title but he did not hold the post.’ Dame Rennie Fritchie, the commissioner for public appointments, on another occasion explained that ‘it was not always necessary to appoint the best person, as other considerations could come into play’. In other words, Buggins ruled.

Each new cabinet secretary is hailed as brilliant, meticulous, intensely able, a superstar. And we must never forget or undervalue their unfailing diligence and superb ethical standards. Nevertheless, after all too short a time, disillusion tends to set in. Hunt admitted that all the four prime ministers he had served had found the Whitehall machine flabby and unresponsive. Sooner or later, every recent prime minister has felt the urge to set up something like a prime minister’s department: Harold Wilson, when he got back in October 1974; Margaret Thatcher in 1983 after her second victory; and Tony Blair after his second victory in 2001. Each of them felt isolated, under-advised and strangely impotent, ‘sitting in a Rolls-Royce without a key’, as Tony Blair put it in one of his periodic moans.

Each time, the effect on the cabinet secretary of the day was electric. Gone were the silky nuances, the subtle subordinate clauses. A tigress in defence of her cubs could not have shown sharper claws. ‘No’, one after the other, said Hunt, Armstrong and Richard Wilson. A prime minister’s department would be a disaster; it would represent ‘politicisation’ — the rudest word in the cabinet secretary’s lexicon.

But what business are they in, if not politics? Is it really such a good idea that the civil servant should always ‘withhold the last ounce of enthusiasm’ from the minister’s policies, as Sir Douglas Wass of the treasury recommended in his Reith lectures, particularly when that ounce sometimes looks more like a kilo? No other institution — civil, industrial, military or religious — operates on the principle that its senior staff should be semi-detached from its driving purpose. On the contrary, it is assumed that active engagement will give them a sharper sense of the likely pitfalls and the modifications that may be necessary to the original specs. The striking thing about civil service advice so often is not that it is mistaken but that it is blurred, suggesting a rather hurried acquaintance with the subject — the sort of essay produced by an essay crisis.

Sir John Hunt, in fending off Harold Wilson, did concede that ‘at some point in the future, the need for a prime minister’s department will become imperative, but equally so I doubt very much whether it would be right or acceptable at the present time’ — a superb example of the doctrine of unripe time. After all, if the quality of government would benefit from having a single central policy staff, why not now? Why should the prime minister of the UK be condemned to operate with no more staff directly responsible to him than the mayor of a middle-sized German city? Can the doctrine that the PM is only ‘the first among equals’ really survive in an era when government has expanded beyond all recognition?

A prime minister’s department would, that said, be no panacea. Systems with strong centres make ghastly mistakes too. In any case, the failings of the Blair government were largely due to their fatal mixture of inexperience and arrogance. As Richard Wilson rudely retorted to Blair’s moan: ‘You have the levers. You choose not to pull them.’ To which I suppose Blair might have replied that, when so starved of expert advice, it was hard to know exactly which lever to pull.

Things today seem to be a bit better than they have been. Cabinet meets more often, even if it has never recovered its old decision-making powers. Government has been prised at least half-open, without the ill effects predicted. Every department now has a couple of outside advisers, if not always of the highest quality or ethical standards (see Damian McPoison passim). And civil servants are better informed about the outside world. The days when their bosses forbade them to cross the threshold of an outside thinktank are a bad memory.

The story that both Seldon and Beesley tell is a fascinating one, even if it is not always the story they set out to tell. Both of them have a nice dry touch and an eye for the absurdities hidden in the mountains of bumf, marred only in Beesley’s case by a speckling of misprints, repetitions and weird omissions of surnames (‘Harriet’ for Harriet Harman and so on), which are a disgrace in an official history.

Beesley ends with a fascinating counterfactual. Would Richard Wilson’s influence have grown rather than shrunk if he had accepted Blair’s offer to head a combined Downing Street and cabinet office team? Yes it would. In fact I’d go further. If he had said ‘yes’, I think the country and the civil service would have been better off.

Ferdinand Mount was The Spectator’s political correspondent and then head of Margaret Thatcher’s No. 10 policy unit. His many books include The New Few.