From command to compromise: Theresa May’s use of Cabinet and Cabinet committees

The prime minister’s approach to her Cabinet and Cabinet committees is, crudely, a premiership of two halves. The IfG’s Gavin Freeguard analyses her tactics

Theresa May was forced to cut a deal with the DUP after the 2017 general election returned her with a minority government. Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/ PA

By Gavin Freeguard

23 Jul 2018

By the end of 13 July 2016, her first day as prime minister, Theresa May had dispatched long-serving chancellor George Osborne to the backbenches. By the end of her reshuffle, other big beasts – notably Michael Gove – had joined him, with 81% of all Cabinet ministers new to their posts. She established three new departments – for Exiting the EU, International Trade, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. She swept through No 10 with two powerful co-chiefs of staff.

Her power was also evident in an important bit of Whitehall wiring often insulated from public attention: Cabinet committees, smaller groups of ministers able to take decisions binding across government on everything from parliamentary business to specific policies. May cut the number of Cabinet committees, sub-committees and implementation taskforces (a Cameron-era innovation to drive and monitor cross-government priorities) from 31 to 21, with the health and social care and Troubled Families taskforces among those abolished. She established new committees – a committee and sub-committee on EU exit and trade, a taskforce on tackling modern slavery – signalling new priorities.

“Stability is normally welcome – ministers are usually moved too much – but on this occasion, it symbolised a prime minister needing to maintain a delicate political balance”

May intended to use sub-committees – not, like Cameron, the daily No 10 morning meetings – for policy development, telling The Spectator that she wanted to return to “what might be described as a more traditional way of doing government”. And May was operating under some political constraints – the Brexit negotiations sub-committee or “war Cabinet” established in March 2017, for example, was carefully balanced between leavers and remainers. 

But it was clear where Cabinet committee control lay. At the start of her tenure, May chaired 10 committees, 48% of the total – more than David Cameron’s 35%. By March 2017, May chaired all 12 committees she attended, with no other minister chairing more than two. Despite a slender majority, May’s command of her Cabinet, of the Cabinet committee system, and the polls, underlined her power.

After the election

The general election result a few months later undermined her power. The prime minister lost her majority, and with it, some political authority. For all the pre-election speculation about Cabinet changes, only minister for the Cabinet Office, Ben Gummer, left the Cabinet after losing his seat. Twenty-one Cabinet attendees stayed in the same post, with only a quarter taking on a new role – the lowest after any election or change of prime minister since at least 1997. Stability is normally welcome – ministers are usually moved too much. But on this occasion, it symbolised a prime minister needing to maintain a delicate political balance. Cabinet resignations since have added to a sense of diminished power; so too did the resignation of “the chiefs” Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, two of 12 special advisers to leave their No 10 posts between December 2016 and July 2017.

May’s approach to Cabinet committees post-election is one of more delegation and greater prioritisation. By November 2017, she attended and chaired only eight committees; Damian Green, minister for the Cabinet Office and first secretary of state, chaired more (nine). Green’s successor at the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, has taken on a similar role: he attends 21 and chairs nine committees.

There are currently five Cabinet committees (on the economy and industrial strategy, EU exit and trade, the National Security Council, parliamentary business and legislation, social reform), 11 subcommittees and seven implementation taskforces. The prime minister chairs all the committees except the parliamentary one, subcommittees on airports, Brexit negotiations and nuclear deterrence, and taskforces on housing and modern slavery, highlighting her political priorities.

There is only so much we can say about how the prime minister uses Cabinet committees from the outside – we don’t know what is discussed or exactly how they operate. We also know there are some “inter-ministerial groups”, whose existence, remit and membership are not formally listed publicly (there are apparently two on Brexit). But broadly, Theresa May’s leadership of her Cabinet has been dictated by her political fortunes: a much stronger sense of command and control before the 2017 general election, and a greater sense of compromise after it.

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