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Cabinet split over covid suggests body still matters

Mike McCartney

23rd February 2022

What does the internal struggle among ministers suggest about the role of the modern cabinet?

It has long been argued that Cabinet government is dead, and it has been questioned if Walter Bagehot’s collective decision making with the Prime Minister as merely primus inter pares ever existed. So before we take a look at the story in the past week about a split at Cabinet, let’s take a look at its role/functions.

  • It is normally considered that formal business takes place at the beginning of meetings. This used to include things like EU news. Ministers would report back from the Council, or other meetings with their EU counterparts. This might now seem like ancient history, but students should be aware that discussions between UK ministers and their European counterparts have been ongoing in relation to the so-called Northern Ireland protocol. Another example can be seen if you watch Michael Cockerell’s excellent “Cabinet Confidential” documentary on YouTube. Here you can see Tony Blair ask Jack Straw to report on the latest developments from the War in Afghanistan.
  • Extraordinary meetings can be called in times of crisis and emergency. The members of the dramatic sounding ‘Cobra’ vary according to the situation at hand. Cobra was first convened under Prime Minister Ted Heath in 1972 to discuss how best to deal with the miner’s strike. More recently, it was scheduled under Blair in response to the September 2000 fuel protests, 9/11, and 7/7. Under Brown the Glasgow airport attack triggered a meeting. Under Cameron, Cobra met in response to the Yemen cargo bomb plot. Theresa May utilised Cobra in response to, inter alia, the London terror attacks. And under Boris Johnson there have been numerous covid related meetings. Most recently Cobra has met to discuss events in Ukraine.
  • A modern development is the focus on media management. ‘The Grid’ was prepared by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff, where news announcements by the government are arranged in advance. It was reported that Powell had the report on the death of Diana penned in for a Friday some months in advance. ‘The Grid’ continued to be a feature of the Brown Cabinet. Media management was also given a high priority under David Cameron.
  • Regular meetings are used to settle disputes on issues of controversy. Cabinet ministers are serious politicians in their own right and can influence policy beyond their departmental brief. Third term issues of the Blair government that were thrashed out in Cabinet include the smoking ban in England and the decision to update/replace Trident. An obvious example from the Brown Cabinet would be the long political meetings held before the election that never was in autumn 2007. The debate about the Alternative Vote issue cropped up more than once during the dying days of the Brown government, with Cabinet moving from against backing it to in favour of supporting it.

So it is in relation to this last function that we focus on with regards events at No 10 this week. According to the Guardian:

“Cabinet ministers were already waiting in No 10 on Monday morning when it became clear the sign-off for the prime minister’s much-anticipated end to Covid regulations was not going to be as perfunctory as they had imagined.

As word leaked out that ministers were being turned away from the delayed meeting, No 10 began by suggesting Boris Johnson’s briefing on Ukraine had overrun. But it soon became apparent that there was ongoing wrangling between Javid and Sunak over the future of testing for NHS staff in particular, and Covid surveillance programmes.

It was an awkward few hours before the final agreement was done. The cabinet was hastily reconvened on Microsoft Teams, with ministers given less than 10 minutes’ notice of the 1.30pm meeting.”

See the full story here: Tory row over testing casts shadow over PM’s Covid announcement | Coronavirus | The Guardian

So it does continue to appear when the Prime Minister is under duress, Cabinet is an arbiter of disputes that can’t be settled elsewhere in what PJ Madgwick called the central executive territory. A famous example is the all-day meetings that took place under James Callaghan in the late 1970s over the IMF bailout deal. Peter Hennessy noted that Callaghan was operating under duress with a capital D when he sought a consensus agreement from his colleagues. There are echoes of that with the current incumbent being accused of bringing forward good news on covid to divert attention from ‘partygate’.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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