How Cabinet Office Works - Part 2
Updated: May 15
Lets pretend to agree collectively...
Cabinet Government is a facade, but it is a facade decorated with a series of committees layered upon more committees that Cabinet Office exists to manage. These committees shape the way government works by affecting minor and mid level decision making, especially what decisions can be made outside of No.10 and the Treasury.
The foundation philosophy governing these committees and, theoretically, Cabinet Government itself, is a principle called “brokering collective agreement”.
“Brokering collective agreement” is essentially the principle that nothing can be decided or announced in government until all members of Cabinet – all Secretaries of State – have agreed to it.
In practice that means that a Government department cannot announce policy that has even the slightest impact of implication for another government department…
For instance, if the Department for Education was to announce something as relatively minor (in the grand scheme of things) as changes to sex education policy, because this has implications for sexual health, culture, equalities etc, it should seek sign off from the Department of Health and Social Care, Department of Culture Media and Sport, and Equalities Office, so it needs “collective agreement”. The policy would go for what’s called “write around”, literally the Department for Education writing around to almost every government department asking for permission to publish.
Now, in practice not every department writes around to every department, but neither does it write around to every department that the policy might have implications for, rather departments are grouped into Committees to try and manage this industrial bureaucratic process. These committees - on everything from national security to space - agree on policy decisions related to those key areas, made up of the respective Ministers from the related departments.
One of the most important is the Domestic and Economic Affairs Committee, the biggest committee whose members are the Secretaries of State from the departments of government that oversee economic and domestic policy, which is most of them. It rarely actually sits as a committee of Ministers, perhaps only once or twice in the last two years if that, but it’s basically a mailing list where the write arounds go so all the various Secretaries of State can approve a policy.
[And so you know, all Secretaries of States are Ministers but not all Ministers are Secretaries of State (SoSs) - SoSs are the most senior of Ministers, the ones that sit in Cabinet and run departments.]
Most write arounds sail through. Some prompt officials to work out compromises where policies contradict, for instance if sex education in schools did not align with sex education advice offered in community health centres, but usually this is done by changes to language in the text of whatever document is being published. Such compromises are managed by a Cabinet Office team called EDS – or the Economic and Domestic Secretariat. EDS exists to manage the write around process. Essentially EDS is a bunch of young officials who coordinate these negotiations between departments on whether a write around can get through. Occasionally, a Secretary of State can block a write around if they disapprove of the policy, which gets resolved by a duel… not really, but rather EDS will again try to negotiate a compromise between the private offices of the Ministers or ask No.10 to order the blocking party to back down.
Ultimately, if No.10 wants something to happen No.10 will invariably get its way. Ensuring a write around gets through is crucial because of No.10’s all consuming, all controlling “grid” of when an announcement can be made. Nothing is more important than the grid. Well, nothing aside money…
You tend to know when something has failed to get through a write around and you tend to always know why, as a Cabinet Minister ends up on the Today Programme with nothing to announce as Savid Javid did back in February 2022. No.10 and the Department of Health were all geared up to announce a plan to address NHS waiting lists and then come the morning they had nothing to say because the write around was blocked. Then, as almost always, the issue was cash.
Then, as almost always, the Treasury held it up. Usually No.10 can tell the department holding things up where to go. But the Treasury is the only department that may choose not to listen to this. Because when money is involved, the Treasury may have its say. And where money is involved, the Treasury always has its say. And in the case of the February announcement on NHS waiting lists, the Treasury hadn’t agreed on paying for the extra cash for the waiting list announcement. Then, as almost always, No.10 and the department backed down and they made the announcement with no new money. This, as you’ll see in my forthcoming blogs, is one in the many ways how the Treasury always gets its way.
The Treasury meanwhile is a rule unto itself, for it doesn’t even follow the write around process. The way it secures collective agreement is unique, as the Chancellor merely has to tell the Cabinet what its doing about an hour before he (and it’s always been a he) announces it, before Cabinet Ministers can even digest it. Yes, process that a second. The department responsible for taxation, the thing that government was invented to oversee and manage, the department that allocates and scruntises spending across the rest of government, does not follow very process and principle that is meant to hold government together. The Budget and Spending Review - more on those in forthcoming blogs - are not subject to the write around process, just a short last minute show and tell in Cabinet where no Minister has time to challenge it and rarely feels empowered to. In theory this is to prevent proposed changes to taxation leaking. In practice it just completely undermines this supposed hallowed process by creating a two tier government, No.10 and HM Treasury (HMT) do their own thing, and the rest follow strict and cumbersome procedures.
To further undermine the process that is meant to be the foundation stone of Cabinet Government, more often than not No.10 just announce or at least leak things anyway. Never has No.10 let a write around get in the way of an announcement. Most major policy announcements are leaked first. Cabinet is ignored. Parliament, of course, gets completely sidelined in all instances.
Cabinet Government doesn’t exist, collective agreement is just pretend. Government is basically a vehicle for No.10 and HMT to do what it whats… So, if Cabinet Government is a sham and collective agreement is ignored for anything substantive, why does Cabinet Office exist at all?
Because what No.10 and HMT are too often not aligned. No.10 is driven by politics, Treasury by other factors that I will go into in the blogs to come. More than anything, this is the way government really works. Government is the perennial conflict of No.10 and HMT, whereby the role of the Cabinet Office is to act as a broker. And this is why it is relevant, Cabinet Office literally sits between No.10 and Treasury on Whitehall, and administratively manages their relationship by managing the small issues through all these various committees. The big issues meanwhile, well where No.10 and Treasury aren't aligned they too get managed through another form of Committee - usually these days called a "Taskforce".
So Cabinet Office justifies its existence by running Cabinet and managing the collective agreement process, but it gets its power another way… by sprawling. See Part 3.