Cabinetry is not what it was. Today’s cabinets turn up in flat packs, and too many pieces do not fit together. The Prime Minister du jour hopes the veneer will mask the cracks and the poor quality of the timber. The current Cabinet numbers 26 and the new Shadow Cabinet 33. Jesus Christ in AD 29 and David Cameron in AD 2012 may not have had much in common but both their Cabinets numbered 12. Research indicates that the most effective size of a public corporation board is just under 10 and, surprisingly, the average actual size is 9.2. The size of Cabinet really depends on how the Prime Minister wants to use it. If its purpose is to debate and, through that, decide policy and what the government wants to achieve, then 12 is as good a number as any. If, however, these matters are decided
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Cabinetry is not what it was. Today’s cabinets turn up in flat packs, and too many pieces do not fit together. The Prime Minister du jour hopes the veneer will mask the cracks and the poor quality of the timber. The current Cabinet numbers 26 and the new Shadow Cabinet 33. Jesus Christ in AD 29 and David Cameron in AD 2012 may not have had much in common but both their Cabinets numbered 12. Research indicates that the most effective size of a public corporation board is just under 10 and, surprisingly, the average actual size is 9.2.
The size of Cabinet really depends on how the Prime Minister wants to use it. If its purpose is to debate and, through that, decide policy and what the government wants to achieve, then 12 is as good a number as any. If, however, these matters are decided elsewhere, then they may be tested in cabinet but its role is really to be the audience. To applaud, the more the merrier. The extent to which Margaret Thatcher welcomed debate in cabinet is itself debatable but the fact is that her second cabinet numbered 22, the same as her first.
Tony Blair, renowned for sofa decision-making, got through 48 cabinet ministers during his 10 years in office, but many of those were the same people in different roles and others just had short stays. The total cabinet at any one time numbered about 25 – perhaps more of an audience than a debating group.
Running a government may or may not compare with running a large corporation. Some corporations are larger than some governments and employ more people. The key governance distinction in business is between executive and non-executive directors, the latter being there, in essence, to keep the former honest. In democracies, that role falls to parliament; Cabinet is essentially executive. On that basis, one has to question whether the non-executive members of the current Cabinet should be members at all.
Current Cabinet numbers exclude Larry, “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Appointed in 2011, he must now be nearing retirement. The office predates any others in cabinet: the first was appointed by Cardinal Wolsey c. 1515. Larry may be the longest serving member of the Cabinet Office but he does not attend Cabinet meetings, or usefully if he does. His role is specific: catching and eliminating rats. The Chief Whip has much the same role; valuable as it is he should not need, normally, to attend Cabinet. Likewise, the Attorney General, Leaders of the Lords and Commons and the Chairman of the governing party. At present, this seat is taken by Amanda Milling. It is not clear why she gets the seat rather than her Co-Chair (Ben Elliot) who has held that appointment longer. Those changes would reduce the current Cabinet from 26 to 21.
Then we have two specialist ministers: Alok Sharma, President of COP26 and Lord Frost, minister for annoying the EU. In the same way as the Financial Secretary, Steve Barclay, and indeed anyone else whose specialist expertise is needed, they should be summoned when their particular expertise is needed. We are now at 18.
The final cull should be the number of departments represented. It is a matter of political philosophy whether the UK government tries to do too much. If it attempted less, would it do better? The pandemic has distorted this picture. Some departments do little beyond divvying up the money HM Treasury provides between those who will actually do something. The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government is a case in point. The work and the spending are almost entirely undertaken by local authorities. Yes, some policy is needed but that does not need thousands of civil servants and a Planning Inspectorate devoted to overturning local democracy. Merge it with the Department for Transport to which similar comments apply.
Much the same also applies to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Yes, we need some regulations in this area but we have plenty of Regulators, supposedly independent of government, for that. Merge it with the Department believed to be for Education which has similar Regulators and disbursement activity.
The final departmental shrinkages should be applied to those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since devolution, they have been little more than liaison offices doing, in the cases of Scotland and Northern Ireland, more harm than good. Michael Gove will in future be operating from Glasgow for half his time and, as Minister for Everything Else, he is a busy man. The Westminster government failed to involve Ulster politicians in resolving the border problem, and now the revision of the Protocol. Surprise, surprise, we now have trouble. My great-grandfather when he was deputy head of the Royal Irish Constabulary used to say he had more troubles with London than with the Irish warring factions back in 1900. Some things don’t change. We do have a Minister for the Union, one Boris Johnson, but he cannot show his face in Scotland. We need to replace the three current Secretaries of State with a separate Minister for the Union who understands that the role is to provide glue, not quasi-colonial supervision.
We are now down to 14 and that seems as good a number as any. It would be wearisome and unnecessary to review the composition of the 33 member Shadow Cabinet in like manner because the operative word is “shadow”. The whole point of the concept is that the number and roles of its members should match those of the actual Cabinet, i.e. 14 in this analysis. Each should monitor and challenge his or her opposite number.
Any trained craftsperson knows that cabinets should be made from hard, well matured timber. The Chinese Cabinet (the “Politburo Standing Committee”) has only between five and eleven, currently seven, members. Their average age is over 60. By contrast, the average age of Johnson’s 2019 Cabinet was 48. Governing a country where no opposition is allowed may be easier, but one has to be impressed by the quality, steadiness and effectiveness of Chinese government, something that is by no means true of all non-democratic countries.
Ultimately the quality of a Cabinet depends on the skill of its maker. Margaret Thatcher is regarded by many as a great Prime Minister who revivified the UK, unblocked the economy and hand-bagged the EU. Her record with her Cabinets, however, was more mixed. John Major was not exactly supported by the “bastards”. His long and hard negotiation with the other EU leaders in Maastricht to extract the UK from the “Social Chapter” was a personal triumph. At the end they gave him a round of applause but his Cabinet gave him no credit for it.
Coming to the present day, most people would consider Johnson’s cabinet-making skills, ignoring their policies and peccadillos, superior to Starmer’s. His success as London mayor, without any qualification for the job, must be down to that. Sir Keir Starmer is clearly a fine lawyer but was not so clearly a great CEO for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from 2008 to 2013.
For example, he claimed to have sorted it: “The prosecution service is strong; focused and capable of excellent standards of delivery. It is time now to build on that secure platform and to embed the public prosecution service at the heart of delivering criminal justice in the 21st century.“ This was not quite the conclusion of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in October 2018: “While recorded crimes have risen by 32% in the last three years, the number of charges or summons has decreased by 26% and the number of arrests is also down.” In fairness we should also note that amongst his successor’s claims was “A new Poor Performance Policy was introduced” [sic, p.11].
In short, whatever skills the Cabinet-maker brings to the task, the Cabinet should be small, about half the present size, made of well-seasoned timber, do what it is supposed to do and not rely on veneer.
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