Is the Cabinet too big?


Yes. (In my opinion). But why so, and what would a smaller Cabinet look like?

This post in part is based on a select committee report calling for fewer ministers, along with a line in Ruth Porter‘s column in The Telegraph where she says she expects some departments to be scrapped in their entirety in an autumn review/reshuffle of the Coalition.

I seldom agree with Ruth in the field of politics, but having watched from various distances and under different prime ministers how “The Cabinet” functions, that particular comment jolted me into blogging about the Cabinet as an institution.

To headline, my take is that the Cabinet should be made up of:

  • Prime Minister
  • Deputy Prime Minister (if Coalition)
  • Economy/Finance Secretary (of State)
  • Expenditure Secretary
  • Foreign Secretary
  • Interior (Home) Secretary
  • Infrastructure Secretary
  • Justice Secretary
  • Health Secretary
  • Education Secretary

Currently the Cabinet looks like this. You also have a “quartet” within the Coalition made up of Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

As a decision-making body, the current Cabinet is far too big. With over 20 people around the table, that’s more than 20 sets of views to potentially consider on every item that is placed. In what is an extremely pressurised and political atmosphere with lots of room for disagreement, this is far too unwieldy for anyone to run – whether as a ‘command and control’ body or a ‘first amongst equals decision-by-consensus’ body. Top two aside, my take is for a Cabinet with departments of state under those listed secretaries of state. And that’s it.

What? No defence secretary? What about ‘our boys?!?!?!’

The principle is simple. Defence – or rather the military – is a function of foreign affairs. When foreign affairs cannot be resolved diplomatically, our ‘weapon of last resort’ is the  military. Anything that is ‘internal’ in the grand scheme of things is a policing matter. Hence the only authority that can authorise the deployment of the military/special forces in the UK being the Home Secretary.

Something like this would only work on the back of a major strategic defence review and a massive reappraisal of what the UK’s role in the world should be. The mindset of the political establishment for too long has been one of ‘world power’ while at the same time not providing the military with anywhere near the resources or support that it needs in order to carry out that function. It has been a credit to the military that they have achieved such great things not because of the political support, but inspite of it.

What’s the difference between finance and expenditure?

Currently the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is junior to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My take is that the role of controlling and monitoring public expenditure alongside regulating the finance industry is too great for one secretary of state. Essentially a “Finance and Economy Secretary” would combine the role of the Business Secretary alongside the oversight roles over banking and finance that the Chancellor currently has. Taxation and expenditure would rest with a Secretary of State responsible for Expenditure. Keep them both in The Treasury by all means, and refer any disputes between the two to the Prime Minister for resolution, but recognise that both are full-time.

Does the Home Office change?

I’d be tempted to move responsibility for the fire service to the Home Office if anything to ensure control of civil contingencies is far better co-ordinated within one department  of state rather than across two.

What’s an Infrastructure Secretary? Is this where Climate Change has gone?

In a nutshell. Transport and the built environment are the greatest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions. Doing this would involve a significant appraisal of what went wrong with Labour’s experiment in 1997 with John Prescott‘s super-ministry – DETR. In the run up to the 1997 election Labour promised an integrated public transport system within 10 years – and fewer journeys by car. My take is that one of the primary causes of this failure was the regular turnover of transport ministers/secretaries (six in the first five years, and five in the last five years of Labours 13 years – Alistair Darling’s four year tenure being a sea of stability). Labour’s failures on housing were also not helped by this regular turnover.

Given the switch towards a different model of cabinet governance, I’d like to think competent secretaries of state with an understanding of how large organisations function could make this sort of set up work.

This would then allow for more empowered cross-cutting ministers of state not necessarily tied to one department (along with their civil servants) working on issues that naturally span a number of different departments. It could also make it easier to co-ordinate across Whitehall with fewer departments of state needed to ‘show their heads’ at cross-Whitehall meetings.

Any other changes?

Quite a few – something like this could only work as part of wider comprehensive constitutional reform. Amongst other things this would mean a separation of legislature from executive as there’s no guarantee that a parliamentary intake would provide for a wide enough gene pool of potential ministers skilled in the art of managing large organisations. That’s not to say the private sector or beyond has a monopoly on this. We found this out with Nick Buckles’ comical appearance in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee. It also has to synchronise with moves to reform how the public sector is scrutinised too.

Ultimately if there are going to be fewer MPs – in particular as a result of devolution, there have to be fewer ministers. Otherwise the executive is going to be strengthened ever further, thus weakening the ability of Parliament to scrutinise it. It’s bad enough with whipped votes as it is.


4 thoughts on “Is the Cabinet too big?

  1. Like a lot of these suggestions, but can’t agree with the idea of an SoS with responsibility only for Education. Would prefer to see an SoS for Children & Families or better yet, and SoS for Childhood. Good holistic understanding of those years from birth to adulthood; a special champion within the cabinet for those who don’t have a vote. Get those first years right and secure the nation’s future. All our nation’s potential is built there. Should definitely be a single post with an integrated and holistic vision of childhood.

  2. I respect your knowledge and experience in this field, but I must say that I take the opposite view. We give one individual too much responsibility at the moment, the best example of this being the Home Secretary. We’ve had very few successful Home Secretaries and the job is widely regarded as a poisoned chalice because they are responsible for too many difficult areas of policy and are unable to give each one the due time and attention. To ensure more effective government, we should be dividing up departments more, so the people running them can focus more on a particular field, and if they prove incompetent, they can do less damage so to speak. You mentioned that bigger departments lead to more co-ordination, but would you say that the largest departments at the moment are particularly co-ordinated?

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