• C. Peters

How Cabinet Office Works - Part 1

The office… for the Cabinet

Cabinet Office exists to house the Cabinet and act as it’s Secretariat, that’s it’s purpose in a nutshell.

The Cabinet is the twenty-something most senior members of government that run the government. They are appointed by the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Crown. They include all the Secretaries of States of Departments, and some select other Ministers that attend Cabinet.

But Cabinet Office from that one simple responsibility of hosting and running Cabinet has grown into something of a bureaucratic monster, which can be summarised in three core responsibilities:

1. Providing the Secretariat for all the central “committees of government”

2. The operational running of the Civil Service

3. Housing the teams and unit that do not sit easily in any other government department

Cabinet Office has an ostensibly crucial role in the government machine – sitting between No.10, HM Treasury, and Ministerial offices as something of a coordination Hub and a broker. Its main office, 70 Whitehall, cojoins with No.10 as discussed in prior blogs, although it has many more staff based in the same building as the Treasury. Cabinet Office’s connectivity with No.10 and Treasury is important.

The Cabinet, meanwhile, is appointed by the PM on behalf of the Crown to be Ministers of the Crown and govern in her name. And they all follow what is called “Collective Cabinet Responsibility”, the principle that they all agree as one, govern as one, and act as one. In practice it is not quite like that.

For one, Cabinet is not a meeting of equals. The Prime Minister appoints them, No.10 tells Cabinet Ministers what they should care about, what their priorities are, what they can say and when they can announce things. Only those confident in their positions with the PM really have an agenda of their own. Most of them bark on command, and whistle to the tune of the No.10 press and political team.

The Chancellor is also disproportionately powerful. Afterall each of those Cabinet Ministers need to go begging to him for cash to fund their priorities. Then the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have prestige positions, although little hard power over their colleagues and those positions are often overstated.

And it’s also worth knowing that meetings of Her Majesty’s Government Cabinet are not this robust meeting where the great brains of our nation debate the issues of the day.

… Cabinet is scripted. From PM to the Ministers around the table, they are all fed lines to take by officials from their Departments and from the Cabinet Office. Its a bit more like PMQs if you took away the opposition when MPs go “don’t you agree Prime Minister that our levelling up policy will transform the north” or whatever. It’s wholly underwhelming.

Only on rare occasions do proper debates break out in Cabinet – which tend to be the big ideological issues. And these days there isn’t much ideology in Cabinet, aside the belief they all want to stay there at any cost.

So “Cabinet government” is really not much of anything. Cabinet Ministers are appointed by the PM, they do what the PM wants, the PM makes the ultimate decisions… Maybe, just maybe, there’s a personality in Cabinet that has so much respect in the Party or the press or (perhaps) among the public that they are treated differently and are able to shape their own agenda - a Peter Mandelson under Brown, a Ken Clarke or Heseltine Major, arguably Michael Gove at his pomp under Cameron, but even these personalities are overhyped. Ultimately, they’re all good little boys and girls who do what they’re told because that is what is expected of a modern Cabinet Minister - snivelling obedience.

The exception is when the PM is weak, as was the case in the second part of Theresa May’s term, or when the Chancellor is strong – as with Osborne and Brown. Until the events of April, Sunak was inexplicably untouchable too. This is when the importance of the Treasury comes in, but more on that in the blogs to come.

So Cabinet is usually a stale staged managed affair and Cabinet Government is a facade. The government is more a triumvirate, of the PM, the Chancellor, and the most important position most of you have never heard of…

… which I’ll introduce next time.

But the Cabinet Office, well that’s a facade that - like the door of No.10 itself - gives the appearance of importance. In fact, it is the administrative smoke and mirrors that the Cabinet Office has set up which explains much of what the government does and why things work the way they do. See part two…

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