Collective action: from Blair to Brexit, have shared cabinet deliberations ever been a reality?

Written by Jon Davis on 14 March 2019 in Feature
Feature

It may seem like Brexit has turned collective responsibility into an irrelevance, but has the image of shared cabinet deliberations ever been a reality? Using the Blair administration as a starting point, Jon Davis examines this crucial – but fraught – part of our governing system

Tony Blair photographed in a cabient meeting Credit: PA

Tony Blair’s approach to cabinet government has come under intense scrutiny and criticism. For some he was simply unconstitutional – whatever that means in a country with what is best described as an uncodified constitution – and operated a damaging “sofa” based informality. Our purpose is not to debunk the sofa myth, but examine the question of collective ministerial responsibility in the 21st century.

It can easily be argued that Blair was not the most naturally collective of leaders. Neither did he need to be, save for Gordon Brown, his chancellor with power like no other. Two thumping majorities followed by a lesser one which was still historically strong; leading an inexperienced party that had been out of office for a generation and whose hard left-wing were temporarily in abeyance; enjoying the fruits of a roaring economy, and an opposition licking their considerable wounds, meant that, as a former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson said, the usual “checks and balances were in a quiet state”.

It’s also clear that the traditional idea of collective cabinet responsibility, whereby all get a say in the great issues of government, was always something of an unrealistic legend. As Nigel Lawson, chancellor under Margaret Thatcher, observed in The View From No 11: “A normal cabinet meeting has no chance of becoming a grave forum of statesmanlike debate. Twenty-two people attending a two-and-a-half hour meeting can speak for just over six and a half minutes each on average.

“If there are three items of business – and there are usually far more – the ration of time just exceeds two minutes, if everyone is determined to have his say. Small wonder then that most ministers keep silent on most issues or confine themselves to brief but pointed questions or observations.”

Sir John Hunt, cabinet secretary between 1973 and 1979, knew his mind on cabinet government: “I do not think collective responsibility is a myth,” he said when giving evidence about the Crossman diaries in 1975.

He later said: “I think it is a reality. It is cumbersome. It is difficult. It has all sorts of disadvantages… it is going to be a bit of a shambles. But I do think it has got to be, so far as possible, a democratic and accountable shambles.” He added that: “this is a price well worth paying for the advantage of shared discussion and shared decision, provided the system can keep up with the demands put upon it.”

While Blair’s natural inclination was undoubtedly to lead from the front, there was also a question of whether the system could keep up with new demands being placed on it. Perhaps his leadership style was an acceptance that government had sped up, due to the communications revolution that started in the UK in the late 1980s with 24-hour news and was turbo-charged by mobile telephony and the internet which achieved mass adoption in the latter half of the 1990s?

Blair himself told our class of postgraduate students at King’s College that the real challenge was how to deal with “the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week media that completely changes the way that prime ministers have to operate. Literally, you cannot imagine how fast you have to take decisions and come to positions.”

The speed of decision-making became a problem, he said: “It’s partly the speed of how the world works for political leaders today – they are expected to take decisions really quickly and if you don’t shape events quite fast then you find that they shape you.”

The thoughtful technocrat Lord Mandelson, twice cabinet minister under Blair, added characteristic colour to the picture when he explained how prime ministers are “terrified of the press”.

“You have to remember that the interaction of the media and politics is very important in all of this. So a prime minister will literally wince if someone so much as opened up a potential millimetre-wide variance from what [Blair] thought we should agree,” he told us.

“He was afraid the press would say, ‘Ah, terrible divisions in cabinet’. They really fear that cabinets are things that can lurch off  in any direction and if they lurch off a centimetre too far there’ll be the press before you, click!”

Gordon Brown spent a decade as chancellor, living for that time in Downing Street (actually above No 10), an unrivalled vantage point with which to observe the role of prime minister. But even he was shocked by how it had changed once he reached the top job.

“I wanted to see a rejuvenation of a more collective form of decision making,” he wrote in My Life, Our Times. “And in all candour, my attempts to move on from ‘sofa’ government perhaps inevitably fell short.

“In just about every area of central government,” he continued, “the media’s questions landed on the doorstep of No 10, no matter what the issue and which department was formally responsible. So, when I now look back at the decisions we made in these first few months and how we made them, and compare this with the decision-making process of my predecessors and successors, I can see how and why the role of prime minister has kept expanding and that of the cabinet has diminished ... the transformation of the media and public perceptions has magnified the role and personality of the prime minister as the public face of the government.

He concluded that “a restoration of what we traditionally thought of as cabinet government was simply not possible when the ingrained expectation was for the prime minister’s office to answer instantaneously the media’s questions on any remotely important government action ... no cabinet – not even one sitting in permanent session – could keep up with the demands for such instant responses.”

The late Lord Heywood of Whitehall was principal private secretary to Blair, and served very closely all his successors. In an interview, I asked him if he thought Blair was unconstitutional when it came to cabinet government?

“I’m not sure I would use the word unconstitutional. Obviously it’s the case that any prime minister has to decide how to use cabinet best. Some prime ministers have brought lots of issues to cabinet, including some controversial issues, and have used cabinet to resolve them,” he said.

“Other prime ministers have used it to basically set out their own thoughts and haven’t really invited much debate. Different prime ministers use cabinet in different ways. Tony Blair’s cabinets were relatively short. Obviously, occasionally, we had long cabinets but in general they were pretty short. Would I call that unconstitutional? I think that’s a very pejorative word. He used other ways of keeping in touch with people, other ways of reaching conclusions on things, but he didn’t use cabinet in the conventional way, at that stage, the conventionally understood way cabinet would be used.”

There are no laws when it comes to collectivity around the cabinet table. As Lord Butler, cabinet secretary from 1988-97, put it to another of my classes: “There’s nothing to say you must [operate cabinet government], you’re not going to be taken to the Supreme Court if you don’t.” But practicality demands a level of consultation and inclusivity, especially as the years turn and the going gets inevitably tougher, as it most surely did for Blair.

Heywood supported this point when he told me: “There are certain rules and conventions, obviously, and I think in the end if the prime minister wants to maintain a coherent government in which individual cabinet ministers are prepared to defend collectively what’s been agreed in the name of the government then he has to find a way of engaging them. You can’t not consult people, then expect them to go out and religiously defend everything the government is doing. So self-preservation in the end dictates that prime ministers do observe certain conventions and one of them is to allow collective discussion or at least collective written agreement to proposals.’

There we have it: the central challenge of collective responsibility in the 21st century – technological and thereby societal change has sped up government decision-making to a quite remarkable extent, but the verities of political power demand consultation. Shambles, anyone?

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Jon Davis
About the author

Jon Davis is director of the Strand Group, Kings College London, and co-author of Heroes or Villains? The Blair government reconsidered, published this month by Oxford University Press

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