What is the relationship between David Cameron and his Cabinet?
A Prime Minister who has poor relations with cabinet will not stay in power forever. Macmillan famously ruled his cabinet by clique, controlling them with skill and precision. Once he fired 6 of his close friends in one reshuffle, a reshuffle so brutal it was compared with Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives”, and replaced them with fresh young talent from within the party. He was out of Downing Street the next year. Thatcher berated and dominated her cabinet ceaselessly over her 11 years in office, with the resulting cabinet mutiny at the end of her tenure surprising as it was devastating. The Butler Inquiry into the Iraq war, highlighted how Blair dominated his cabinet over Iraq, as well as several other key areas of policy. However after naively announcing he would serve a full third term, his cabinet turned against him, threatening a Thatcher- style coup, and Blair capitulated to the cabinet he once dominated, giving them a resignation date of 2007.
David Cameron, the self-proclaimed “heir to Blair”, has had to take a more hands off approach to his Cabinet, returning, some argue, to the primus inter pares (first amongst equals) ideal. Partly it has been part of his aim to “detoxify the brand” by moving away from Thatcher’s style of Cabinet meeting, partly because being in coalition with Liberal Democrats means a more hands off approach is needed in order to maintain the coalition, and partly because he wants loyalty from his own ministers while in government, to prevent a coup in the style of 1990 or 2007. Unlike Machiavelli, he would rather be loved than feared to maintain loyalty.
But has Cameron truly returned cabinet to its ideal format? Tony Blair, in order to weaken the cabinet, favoured “bilateral meetings” where policy would be decided between him and the relevant cabinet member before cabinet meetings. These informal meetings were never minuted by a civil servant. As a result, formal cabinet meetings soon became a forum for announcing policy rather than discussing it, with former cabinet ministers like Claire Short suggesting formal votes were rare. David Cameron, restricted by a coalition but also aware of public disquiet over the Blair style, has designed a ‘Quad’, in effect an elite meeting within the cabinet system designed to keep both sides of government united. Two Conservatives (himself and George Osborne) and two Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander) discuss policy in an open and transparent way. The meetings, unlike Blair’s bilateral meetings, are minuted and will be released for public reading in 30 years’ time. The purpose of these meetings is mainly to make sure the differences between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are resolved, before a full cabinet meeting with 3 other Liberal Democrat and 16 other Conservative Ministers present. Until recently this seems to have ensured four years of stable, effective government, with plenty of laws being passed and relatively few serious coalition splits.
However it is argued that this is Blairism by other means, and harms the proper functioning of the cabinet system. For more about the Quad see here–
David Cameron has also given members of his own party autonomy to pursue their own projects, however controversial. Unlike Thatcher, who took a particular interest in economics, and Blair, who took a particular interest in foreign policy, Cameron is less of a details man, allowing the ministers to do what they will. He has allowed Ian Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, former party leader and founder of the think tank Center for Social Justice– to implement several controversial policies at the Department for Work and Pensions, including Universal Credit, the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and punitive benefits sanctions. Similarly he allowed Andrew Lansley to pursue the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 without much intervention from himself until the bill was progressing through Parliament, despite the huge controversy and opposition form medical professionals.
However David Cameron is not giving his Cabinet complete free reign, and has been forced to step in from time to time in order to stop the more erratic ideas of his Cabinet Ministers. In 2011 he forced the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, to abandon her plan to sell off 258,000 hectares of publicly owned woodland, a move which would have raised up to £250 million but would likely have led to the forests being used for unsuitable purposes. He did this shortly after admitting he was not happy with her plan during Prime Ministers Questions. This was the biggest U-turn the government had committed at the time and it was publicly humiliating for Caroline Spelman, who was demoted to the backbenches in the 2012 reshuffle.
David Cameron has done little to reverse the use of Special Advisers (SPADs). Tony Blair employed 84 during his time, including “spin doctors” like Alistair Campbell. At the last count David Cameron has employed 68 advisers, 18 of whom work for him. Special advisers are party political and usually experts on areas of policy. These advisers are unelected and, it is claimed, undermine the role of civil servants (the central bureaucracy of the cabinet system). Under Blair they were given superiority over the civil service, reversed under Brown. Blair also had a strong team of SPADs in his Number 10 office. It was claimed some became even more important in developing policy than ministers. Cameron’s SPADs (apart from Andy Coulson who was forced to resign in 2011) have had less of a public profile although he still retains a Number 10 office.
So, more ministerial autonomy, yes. A stronger role for civil servants, yes. However the continuous use of SPADs and the presence of the Quad – questions Cameron’s commitment to the historic ideals of a cabinet system. A question worth asking is in a time of 24-hour news, the growth of informal powers of the prime minister and focus on personalities, is cabinet government an ideal from a bygone era?