Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood has batted away a call for top civil servants to be given the power to go public if they believe a prime minister is sidelining ministers, in a bid to prevent a repeat of the Iraq war controversy.
Sir John Chilcot's long-awaited report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq found that then-prime minister Tony Blair's cabinet was frequently left out of the loop in the run-up to the war, with key meetings not minuted by officials, and departments failing to share information or provide adequate assessment of the risks of invasion.
The Better Government Initiative, an influential group of former senior officials — whose members include former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, and the ex-Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram — this week called for a formal procedure to be put in place to allow permanent secretaries to go public if they believed proper cabinet processes were not being followed.
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The BGI said there was a "strong case" for extending the present system of "ministerial directions" — which only allow top civil servants to inform MPs and the public spending watchdog if they have concerns over spending orders from ministers — to also cover breaches of the Cabinet Manual.
But that call was met with scepticism by Heywood on Wednesday, as he appeared before MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to answer questions on Chilcot's findings.
"It introduces a degree of antagonism between the cabinet secretary and the prime minister" - Sir Jeremy Heywood
Heywood told the committee that such a system "wouldn't be necessary under current circumstances", and warned that it could in fact lead to a breakdown in relationships between the prime minister and their top official.
"Starting with it being unnecessary, it then introduces a degree of antagonism between the cabinet secretary and the prime minister — and it really would only be the prime minister at whom this proposal would be directed, because it's the prime minister who decides how the conduct of government is taken forward," he said.
"So that would put a significant point of tension, potentially, between the cabinet secretary and the prime minister — in my view, completely unnecessarily at the moment."
During the hearing, Heywood was also pressed on the coalition government's handling of the the 2011 intervention in Libya, after a report by the Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted a string of failures in analysis and planning ahead of UK action.
"Whatever might have gone wrong with Libya in the aftermath of a successful military engagement, it was not down to a want of Cabinet Committees meeting with proper agendas" - Sir Jeremy Heywood
The cabinet secretary sought to downplay comparisons between the experience in Libya and that of the Iraq war — and defended the operation of the National Security Council, set up in 2010 to address some of the failures of the Iraq build-up.
“What I can say in relation to Libya was that the National Security Council and a sub-committee of the council, the Libya sub-committee met on many, many occasions," he said.
"So what whatever might have gone wrong with Libya in the aftermath of a successful military engagement, it was not down to a want of Cabinet Committees meeting with proper agendas, proper preparation by officials, with proper challenge by ministers on those committees who didn't have direct responsibility,” he said.
“All of those things took place in relation to Libya — so whatever happened was despite good process.”
While Heywood said he had read the BGI’s report and was "not totally close-minded to it", the cabinet secretary warned against a focus on changing processes instead of culture, saying government was "not a mechanical thing" in which the existence of a particular cabinet committee meant everything was working smoothly.
And he said the threat of a cabinet secretary going public with concerns about the way a prime minister ran their government could "destroy their relationships, frankly".
"Much more problematic is how the meetings are used," he said. "I think the key point I would make and one of the most important lessons of all from Chilcot and possibly even from Libya... is it's not so much what meetings you fix up or don't fix up.
"It's what culture and spirit of challenge you've got within those meetings. Because you can have as many meetings as you like and the cabinet did meet many times on Iraq and Iraq was often on the agenda.
"But those Cabinet meetings did not translate themselves into any serious challenge to the prevailing wisdom. So I think a lot of this is not a binary question of have you got the right meetings and the right people on the meetings? It's how are those meetings operating in practice, which is a much more subjective and difficult-to-analyse issue."