Thoughts for an incoming Government: a functional Cabinet

Posted on: August 15th, 2014

Following the recent reshuffle, the number of ministers attending Cabinet meetings has expanded yet further to 33 – 22 full members of Cabinet plus 11 others with the right to attend.

With the Cabinet Secretary, note-takers and members of the Prime Minister’s staff who attend, there are now over 40 people present. So many that not even all the ministers can get a seat at the Cabinet table.

This is plainly ridiculous. The function of the modern Cabinet should be to act as a team to provide the Government with strategic leadership and co-ordination. It is simply not possible to have a serious conversation between 33 people, with a football team of onlookers. And allowing a large number of junior ministers to be present is unlikely to add much to the discussion which Secretaries of State cannot bring.

It suggests that the Prime Minister is not using the Cabinet for its proper purpose. Granted it is no longer primarily a decision-taking body: most collective decisions are best taken in the specialist Cabinet Committees. But, if Government is to function successfully, the Cabinet needs to be a forum in which senior ministers can discuss frankly and privately the big issues of the day.

The Better Government Initiative believes that the effectiveness of the Cabinet is being undermined by this ballooning excess. While the process started with the Blair and Brown Governments, under which more junior Ministers were given the right to attend Cabinet meetings, matters have if anything got worse under the present Coalition despite all the talk of making government more businesslike.

Attendance at Cabinet meetings should be determined by the need for the most senior ministers to act as team and provide strategic leadership to the Government, not by the Prime Minister’s desire to confer patronage, by junior ministers’ wish to enhance their status or by presentational sops to ministers denied full Cabinet status.

Realistically we are probably stuck with this absurdity until the election. But the incoming Prime Minister, of whichever party, should restore Cabinet to being a significantly smaller and more manageable body. Only full members of Cabinet should attend, together with the smallest possible secretariat. Only then will there be a chance of encouraging frank and private discussion and restoring the Cabinet’s effectiveness.