- Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-18)

Professor Peter Hennessy and Dr Tony Wright

3 JUNE 2009

Q1 Chairman: Dr Wright and Professor Hennessy, good morning. Thank you very much indeed for joining us. We are being recorded and I would like to ask, if I may, that you identify yourselves formally for the record and then, if you so wish, say a few words of introduction.

Professor Hennessy: Good morning. Professor Peter Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London.

Dr Wright: I am Tony Wright, and I chair the Public Administration Select Committee down the other end of the building.

Q2 Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Can I begin by asking which key constitutional issues you think that we should have in mind in relation to our inquiry into the role of the Cabinet Office and the centre of government?

Dr Wright: May I just commend your ambition in undertaking this inquiry? I have chaired the Public Administration Committee for, I think, nearly 10 years now and over several years in the early 2000s we had a continuing inquiry on the go called The New Centre. We never completed that inquiry because the new centre constantly changed. We were going to try and pin it down and say something intelligent about it, and then, instead of that, we rather feebly, I think, eventually published a report called The Emerging Issues. So I am genuinely full of admiration for you taking this project on. You cannot, I am afraid, just look, as you know, at the Cabinet Office, you really do have to look at the centre of government, and that means looking at the big players at the centre; I am afraid it means you have to look at Number 10, you have to look at the Treasury, you have to look at the Cabinet Office and, indeed, you have got to look at the big players. You have got to look at the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and because these things are determined not by organisational flow diagrams but by political dynamics, the thing changes all the time, which will be one of the features of my remarks. So to answer your question directly, there is a big constitutional question and a big machinery of government question about the role of what you might call the corporate centre in British Government. There is a continuing discussion, which you all know about, between departmentalism and the centre in Britain, and that has taken different forms at different periods. It has taken a particular form since 1997, but it is a continuing discussion, and that, in turn, then raises issues about the role of the Cabinet and about the role of the Prime Minister and some of the players involved. That is an unresolved issue; it is an evolving issue. You will do well to pin it down. If you can go beyond pinning it down to, as it were, resolving it, then my admiration will be unbounded.

Professor Hennessy: Tony has touched on the central question, Lord Chairman, which has been lurking since May 1997 in a pretty acute form, and it is this: have we seen a real shift away from the spirit as well as the practice of collective Cabinet government which is meant to underpin our system—it is the opening paragraphs of what is now the Ministerial Code and what used to be Questions of Procedure for Ministers which are dedicated to that—to something more prime ministerial? In fact, what we have had since May 1997 (and Tony Blair's people would say this privately, as do Gordon Brown's) is a Prime Minister's Department in all but name pretty well a fusing of the Cabinet Office and Number 10. But they treat Parliament, public and scholars as if we had not noticed. They behave as if they are Sherlock Holmes in The Reigate Vampire: "The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared, Watson." Do you remember that line? They really should come clean about it, and I hope that, as part of your inquiry, you will actually anatomise this directly, clearly and cleanly. I am not sure who you are getting as witnesses on this, but you really do need to get certain people who have been on the inside since 1997 in various forms to admit publicly to you what they will admit privately, because it is a big constitutional shift and it has got in the way of what I think is always a necessary separation in the Cabinet Office between classic Cabinet Office, the secretariats, the tradition of Lloyd George and Hankey running through, which serves the whole Cabinet and is the combination of co-ordinator and central thinker for collective Cabinet government; and around that citadel there have always been little encampments, little units, little fires, little temporary outfits, some better than others, some bigger than others, some more enduring than others. And the trouble is that we have managed to contaminate, to some degree, classic citadel Cabinet Office, which I think is indispensable to the proper functioning of Cabinet government, with these outliers and these outriders. The other question which I hope we will talk about, or that you will investigate, is the desirability, or otherwise, of having the heads of those Cabinet secretariats, classic citadel Cabinet Office secretariats, as hybrids, who are the Prime Minister's personal advisers as well as the heads of those secretariats. So that is my main concern, and that is also why I share Tony's pleasure and praise for your conducting this investigation and, given that we are surrounded by a high degree of political turbulence at the moment, the political class is in a state of tremendous displacement activity, that the serene but utterly important questions of the British Constitution should not be neglected in this hour.

Q3  Lord Lyell of Markyate: I quite understand what you have said. In a sense it sounded a little bit like the civil servant telling a minister he was brave, but it seems to me that one key constitutional duty of the Cabinet Office is it is the duty of government to govern according to law and it is the duty of the Cabinet Office to advise ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, if they are going to break the law, and there are one or two examples. For example, Tony Blair's comments on the British Aerospace case were absolutely contrary to the legal obligations which he had taken this country into in relation to the OECD. Why did not the Cabinet Office flag it up, or did they? There is the misleading use of intelligence in Iraq. That is slightly murkier still. There is the arrest of Damien Green, who is arrested, unless there was some national security thing, for offences which were decriminalised by Douglas Hurd in 1989. Why did not the Cabinet Office know and flag it up? Is this not a central constitutional point?

Dr Wright: I hesitate to dissent in any way from Peter, whom I simply adore, but Peter is a great romantic and in some ways a traditionalist in these things. I think there is an issue here that you have to get hold of. Can I quote very briefly Andrew Turnbull, his valedictory speech when he left the office of Cabinet Secretary in 2005? He said this: "When Mr Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, he found in the Cabinet Office the traditional secretariats responsible for managing and co-ordinating government business, a number of units responsible for propriety and ethics, plus an HR function still vested in administration rather than development. In Number 10 he found a small private office and a small communications function, but one dealing only with news and one with national media. The leader of a large organisation would expect to find far more than this at its centre. He was entitled to ask, `Is that it?'" All I am saying to you is that I do not want to be on the side of the argument which says there is corruption of a traditional model going on here. I think there is a development model going on all the time, but there is a problem, which is what should the centre of government do and how should it be organised? What is this corporate centre in Britain? It is disaggregated amongst different institutions? The Cabinet Office is one player in it. Peter asked the question: should we clarify whether it has become the Prime Minister's Department? I remember John Prescott, in evidence to us, when it became the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, saying that it had become the Prime Minister's Office. Of course, he had not really thought through what it meant, but I think there are questions about whether we need a Prime Minister's Office and what it would contain, what that would leave for a Cabinet Office to do as the collective arm of government. These are all questions that I think you have got to get your head around, which are different from just: there has been a corruption of traditional arrangements.

Q4  Lord Lyell of Markyate: I am sorry; you just have not answered the question, Tony.

Dr Wright: Well, I cannot tell you about these particular instances.

Q5  Lord Lyell of Markyate: Is it not part of the duty of the Cabinet Office to see that the government of the day is advised if it is likely to break the law?

Dr Wright: It is the job of the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary to see that government business is conducted properly, yes.

Professor Hennessy: If I may say so, the legal side should be the easy bit. The Government Legal Service has extremely good people and you have got Law Officers and the Lord Chancellor, and so on. That should be the straightforward bit. The trouble always comes in the informal constitution, the unwritten bits that used to be called, rather unkindly but accurately, the "good chap" theory of government—the good chaps knew where the lines were drawn and did not push it (the good chaps of both sexes, I hasten to say). Kenneth Pickthorn, a Member of this House a long time ago, 45 years ago now, said: "Procedure is all the constitution the poor Briton has." Well, that has changed considerably, we have got much more constitutional legislation now, but it is those areas that Pickthorn had in mind that is the problem. The interpretation of whether the Ministerial Code has been breached or not is proper procedure. For example, if you have a destiny Prime Minister like Tony Blair, and Mrs Thatcher also in a similar way, they get very irritated by these fusspot constraints and they would say: "Romantic traditionalist, dyed-in-the-wool civil servants keep telling me why I cannot do this. Do they not realise the problems I am facing?" Proper procedure and care and due attention to it can irritate destiny politicians profoundly. The Jim Callaghans of this world, whom Lord Morris remembers, were much more attuned to a collective style, as was John Major. So a problem quite often arises from the temperament of the Prime Minister when he or she chafes against these unwritten constraints. For example, if you take the Intelligence question which you raised, the tradition of British Intelligence as it has developed (it is not written down) rests on a series of deals. Deal one is that the secret agencies and the Joint Intelligence Committee provide the picture, as they see it, with no holds barred. They put reality in front of their customers, and it is then the duty of the customers, ministers in the end, to decide what is done on the basis of that intelligence, and you avoid the contamination of both the KGB and the CIA doctoring it to it suit the known perceptions of the reader. That is a classic lesson of World War Two British intelligence, a pearl beyond price, I think. The other deal in British intelligence is that, because we are in an open society, you only use the secret agencies and their special methods for the last opaque 10% of things you really need to know about potentially dangerous people in countries that they spend a great deal of effort trying to conceal from you. Also, linked to all of that, anybody in that chain of provision of Intelligence must speak truth unto power, and they must spare them nothing, and they must flag it up, which is also the Joint Intelligence Committee tradition, when it is based on very little solid evidence. If there is ever any problem with that, as indeed there was on the road to Iraq, all those unspoken assumptions, which are not written down, that have made British Intelligence, per person, per pound of public money, far more effective than any other Intelligence system in the world, are jeopardised. So I agree with you entirely, but the problem arises in the unwritten bits. It should not arise where the law is the main determinant, but I accept that it does.

Q6 Lord Lyell of Markyate: In my few excursions into the Cabinet Office what I discovered was that there was a terrific lot of immediate ringing round on these legal problems. The Cabinet Office legal adviser was on to Juliet Wheldon at the Attorney General's Office and on to the Lord Chancellor's department. It was very quick. It just does not seem to have been happening in the examples that I gave you, and I think the system is breaking down, but do you have a comment on that?

Professor Hennessy: It is always difficult to determine, particularly when it is a recent past, even when you have got the archive, if it is a question of people or system, because the private office network is an amazingly efficient network and has been for many years. It is amazing, is it not, how we had Prime Ministers that got through two world wars, the disposal of a British Empire, a 40-year confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies, without feeling the need to have 70 special advisers around them in Number 10? It is not as if Mr Attlee, Mr Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Jim Callaghan or Harold Wilson felt deprived because they did not have an abundance of 25-year olds with political science degrees who knew the square root of bugger all about life around them. I am sorry; I have distracted the flow of the questions.

Dr Wright: There have been endless reviews, as you will have discovered, on the Cabinet Office over the years, and over recent years in particular, and we have had capability reviews of the Cabinet Office, all exploring its role and identifying the things that it is thought to be rather good at and the things that it is thought to be bad at. Actually, the things that it is thought to be good at are those things where it clearly does possess a body of central expertise that government needs, like propriety and ethics for example, and that is the example of where you just need something at the centre which, as it were, fertilises the whole of government. The things which it is less good at are to do with answering these questions about what actually is the underlying role and purpose of this organisation in a number of different ways, and that, I think, is an unresolved question that hangs in the air.

Q7 Lord Peston: This is all very big stuff. Could I bring the questioning down to my level? What staggers me, which I have mostly got from reading memoirs which are pouring out these days, is that the intervention of the Prime Minister, or his office, and related bodies in what goes on is mostly of the utmost triviality. It is obviously connected with spin-doctoring. Do you agree that we should not create this image of a central set of arrangements of very deep thinkers thinking fundamental questions when mostly they are asking questions like "How will this run in some newspaper or other"? Whether we want to spend public money on vast numbers of people to claim they understand that is beyond me, but I would certainly like your view. It would have been interesting to have been able to do a study of how most of these people that you are talking about actually occupy their day.

Professor Hennessy: It is very difficult to pick that up in the recent past, let alone through the archive, because it is on the telephone and the emails seem to get lost, do they not? The Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Inquiry showed how vulnerable we are going to be to the disappearance of government by email. You are absolutely right. Early on in the Blair years I used to do these six to nine-month surveys of the Blair style of government, because historians tend to tidy up a bit when things are over and they forget how they misled themselves and other people, a sort of snapshot, and I remember somebody who is still around, a bit battered but he is still there, saying the two most powerful words in Whitehall are "Tony wants". The trouble is, people would say to me you do not know if Tony really wanted it because it is some special adviser saying "Tony wants"! It was very often: "how will this play on the Today Programme and Newsnight?", and that is where the weather was made a lot of the time in the Blair Number 10, and now in the Brown Number 10, on the part of these—how can I put it?—they are not hybrids; it is the froth of it. It is not citadel Cabinet Office and it is not traditional Number 10, but that is the world they live in, and it does make the political weather, it uses up an enormous amount of nervous energy and it means that in the government departments, which are given functions by statute, secretaries of state should be big figures in their own right: a lot of the weaker ones, and there were a lot of weak ones, I am afraid, would not move without clearing it with Number 10 first, which very often meant a special adviser, which I think is a corruption of what our system of government should be, and, also, the permanent secretaries then had to agree with the Prime Minister their work plan for this year. It is like you and I, in the old days, dealing with a rather ropey research student, saying you have got certain deadlines; it is hopeless. Both permanent secretaries and secretaries of state are much, much diminished figures, and it has not led to good government, has it? But it comes back to being a human problem. If somehow New Labour created the most supine Cabinet since the war, which I think it did, particularly on the road to Iraq, how do you stiffen them? It is a Disraeli phrase—"an injection of water would have stiffened their backbones" a lot of the time, and it is a human problem. You can have all the ministerial codes you want and all the understandings about what proper procedure is, but if they do not breathe life into it and say to a Prime Minister: "Wait a minute, we did not know that. Have you had a meeting that we do not know about? Can we have a proper paper, please?" Do you remember that extraordinary bit in the Butler Report that top flight papers were prepared by the Overseas and Defence Secretariat of the Cabinet Office on the road to Iraq but they were not circulated? One wonders why, and one wonders why the Cabinet ministers concerned did not ask for it. That is the problem in the end. It is both a human and a systems problem. You always have to try and recreate as a historian where the weather-makers are and who they are and the degree to which they crowd out other heavier duty questions.

Dr Wright: I do not dissent from a lot of that, but I would like to add to it, if I can. There is an issue about, I think, the number and role of the special adviser world in Number 10, and this has been well rehearsed in recent years, as to whether it is actually helping the Government to get a strategic focus and to keep departments up to the mark, and so on, or whether it simply interferes and gets across things and makes things more complicated. Sir Richard Mottram, who is always someone worth listening to, told our Committee a week or two ago that he thought that was a real issue in government at the moment, so it is worth looking at. The bit I would add to, though, is, please do not think that that is the only issue or that it is simply the negative thing that you want to focus on, because you also have to understand why it is that, not just this government, but all governments have wanted to try to strengthen the strategic role of the centre, right from Ted Heath and his Central Policy Review Staff and all that, and some of what has been going on is a response to an enduring issue in British Government and I think some of it is successful. Some of these units which float between the Cabinet Office and Number 10, I think, have done well; at least they have done well over periods. I think the Strategy Unit run by Geoff Mulgan was extremely valuable. Our Committee did a report on (we called it rather grandly) Governing the Future. We wanted to look at how well government actually did work preparing for the future. We went to Finland, which is supposed to be at the forefront of all this, and they said, "Oh, we think you are at the forefront in Britain. Your horizon scanning work and your Strategy Units are world leading", and they did excellent work. The Delivery Unit under Michael Barber did excellent work trying to identify government priorities across the board and then chasing them with departments and having prime ministerial backing, which is the key thing to do. So it is a mixed picture.

Professor Hennessy: Could I agree with that, Lord Chairman? I think the great successes post 1997 in terms of the units were Geoff Mulgan's Strategy Unit and Michael Barber's Delivery Unit, and pre/post Barber we can see a big difference, for example, as indeed the Central Policy Review Staff was very good in some of its phases, but it was a resource for the whole Cabinet. Some of you around this table were customers for it at various times and Ted Heath and Burke Trend, the then Cabinet Secretary, worked it out so that it was a resource for the whole Cabinet, not just the Prime Minister. I think that is a key question too, because you do need to strengthen at certain times, and every Prime Minister should have the right to get the configuration that he or she wants, provided shortcuts are not taken and all the rest of it. The model I would go for is the Central Policy Review Staff in recent times plus the experience of the Mulgan Unit. And Geoff Mulgan spent a good deal of time working out how the Central Policy Review Staff had in fact worked, so there is a kind of continuity there, a passing on of tradition and knowledge. But I would back what Tony said wholeheartedly about the Mulgan Unit and the Barber Unit.

Q8 Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: Putting it in rather simple terms, how relevant is Cabinet Office to good government? There have been many changes, and we will be discussing later on who is mainly responsible for the changes. But can we say, going back not only over the 30 years but even further, that government is better as a result of changes in the Cabinet Office, in broad terms as between parties—government—in 2009 and government, say, 40 years ago? We talk about this, and so many members of the Cabinet Office are enthusiastic, and academics and others enjoy this, but what do you say?

Professor Hennessy: I have just been reading the papers again—and one of my research students, Rosaleen Hughes, is doing a thesis on this—the great crisis that you sat through, the 1976 IMF crisis, which was extraordinary at the time, as I remember it as a young journalist, but also, when I get the entrails of the papers (and we have got remarkable papers). Somebody had the wisdom to put in a big brown envelope the notes that John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary, gave Jim Callaghan at various points in those nine crucial Cabinets that Lord Rodgers will remember, plus Jim's own notes of where the discussion was going. When you put that alongside the formal Cabinet minutes and Ken Stowe's Principal Private Secretary notes, a remarkable reconstruction is possible, which I am sure you would enjoy. But in those circumstances the tests of some of the systems are in tough times. John Hunt and his Secretariat, and indeed the Central Policy Review Staff under Ken Berrill, were pretty crucial to helping you get through. They were not absolutely the determinant, of course they were not, because it was a political matter and a human matter. But you can see in those files Cabinet government under real duress, as you remember it, over quite a sustained period, and I think without John Hunt and the strength of that tradition and those capabilities, you might well have found it harder to get through, but that is for you to judge.

Q9 Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: That is very specific. Looking at it in the round, that is what I am asking, not about a specific event or bits of history.

Professor Hennessy: It is like clean water. If a good Cabinet government goes, you only know when it has gone, and you regret it. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for good government. But if Cabinet government is not working, either because ministers are not living up to the requirements of the informal constitution and testing things out and requiring proper briefings, everything begins to suffer. But, of course, in many ways government is better. Lord Rayner's unit, which was another hybrid Prime Minister's Office, Cabinet Office number, I thought was very effective in the 1980s at improving the quality of public services, and, indeed, the public services and the customer care elements are much better. But that is a bit separate from the core old-fashioned requirement of Cabinet government, which is that at the apex of the political and the administrative systems you have due care and due process and, as the Ministerial Code says, there is proper discussion, at the apex or near it, in Cabinet committees of all serious matters that affect the country and where there is dissent within the Government and within the country. So, Lord Rodgers, I am concentrating on the Hankey/Lloyd George reform and the way it panned out through—proper minutes, proper agendas, which they did not have before 1916; and my argument would be it is very hard to do a rolling audit of the quality of government because circumstances change and people change. But without that central bit, that indispensable core working properly, you are in deep trouble, and I think the Butler Report showed that in technicolor.

Dr Wright: Your question is: have any of these changes made government work better? Of course, that is the mission statement of the Cabinet Office; that is its strap-line, making government work better, which is quite a formidable objective. You do need a bit of perspective, because I cannot remember the golden age when government was working beautifully. Indeed, if you go back 30 years, we were being told on all sides that our system of government was collapsing; that we were ungovernable; that there was overload; real meltdown was going on; that there was something systemically wrong with our system. But, of course, it was a combination of how we do things with external factors; so you have just got to keep a bit of perspective. All I would say is that the issue that Prime Ministers then knew about, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, who we have spoken of, in a sense were grappling with the same thing, which is how you try to get some strategic direction to a government that is run on a departmental basis in facing an external environment. We have not got the answer to that. We have had lots of goes at it over the years; we have had some excellent attempts to analyse it. The best one, by the way, in case you are interested, I think, was done two years ago by Suma Chakrabarti, who is now the Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development. He did a report for the Cabinet Secretary on the role of the Cabinet Office which is excellent, and it shows you, I think, a model of what a centre of government would properly do, but, ironically, of course, no sooner had he produced that than we had a new Prime Minister who went and changed the furniture again.

Q10 Chairman: Suma Chakrabarti is now at the Department of Justice.

Dr Wright: I am sorry; I got the wrong department.

Q11 Lord Morris of Aberavon: I found your answer fascinating and challenging. What do you think has been the most significant change in the operation of Cabinet since 1997? Has there been a loss of independence by individuals? You have mentioned Iraq and all that. We have all noticed the frenetic activity of recent Prime Ministers, either in travel or even latterly in odd telephone calls, but Harold Wilson used to say in his second period that he did not have much to do. His Cabinet ministers fed him with a ball and all he was was the centre forward scoring the goal, if he could, and that was quite a different tempo to that which perhaps the demands of today impose upon Prime Ministers?

Professor Hennessy: The world is different from when you were first a Minister. The 24-hour news media cycle, and all the rest of it, is always the obvious one to cite first. But, having said that, you do not have to succumb to it. You cannot go back to being my one political hero, Mr Attlee, and delivering two sentence replies with the Movietone cameras running. But would it not be wonderful if, somehow, somebody came through the political system that did that? You do not have to be dominated to the extent that we have been since 1997, and still are, whereby at the very earliest stage of policy formulation in a department, let alone before it gets to the Cabinet Office or full Cabinet or Cabinet committee, how it will play on Today or Newsnight is the question. And if you let the mania of the electronic media create the circumstances in which you operate, you have already begun to lose. It is government-by-incontinence really. They do not know how to ration themselves. The only time they ration themselves is when they have got mens rea (guilty knowledge)—they know they have done something wrong—and then you hear the Radio 4 sequences saying, "We tried to get X to come and speak, or a spokesman, but they would not". But this kind of government by press neurosis and incontinence is very corrosive. It uses up a vast amount of nervous energy and it means that you feel the need to employ people who should not actually be in Crown service either as temporary civil servants, special advisers, let alone established ones. You have actually lived through the change, I know you have, because of your career. But it was not that the problems were any less severe in some of the meetings through which you sat as a minister. There were extraordinarily tough times in the late 1960s/early 1970s. The 1970s was an immensely turbulent decade, and the 1980s was not exactly tranquil. I do not want to portray the Government in the way Rab Butler used to, as some kind of serene Rolls Royce—he was joking: he was quite good at jokes, was he not?—but you have got to have a kind of capacity to think and talk amongst yourselves privately without leaks, without a constant obsession with how it will play on the sequences on Radio 4, let alone Newsnight, so that you can think and you can talk candidly and you get the maximum out of the departments in terms of their stored knowledge on questions. The departments have been really very thinly used in recent years compared to the degree to which they used to be. Quite often Number 10 will have a Prime Minister making a speech where the crucial parts of it have not even been shown to the department concerned and it is written by some special adviser. The people we have to defend ourselves against first in this country are ourselves actually. We have a lot of clever and good people in Whitehall, a lot of stored wisdom in those departments and we do not actually so arrange matters that our Government is greater than the sum of its parts. The two and a half governing tribes, the permanent civil servants, the ministers, or transients, the half being the tribe of special advisers, live in this very scratchy and unsatisfactory relationship. And so the processes of government of which the Cabinet Office is meant to be the guarantor and the standard-setter are very, very diminished, and I think that is the big change from your time. It was not a golden age. I was a young journalist reporting in the Willie Whitelaw/Denis Healey generation—very different from this. To be unkind, which goes against my nature, this political generation now reminds me of Kitty Muggeridge's immortal line about David Frost: "David is risen-without-trace." This is the risen without trace generation. What have they done on the way to becoming secretaries of state? The square root of bugger all again! In the end, it is a human problem. I am mixing metaphors here and also wandering into areas where I should not, but you have got to look at both structures and cultures. I commend to you, Tony's terrific lecture to the Political Quarterly three months ago, because he actually came in on this crucial question of the need always to see it as a mixture of a structural question and as a human question.

Q12  Chairman: To be fair to the Government mens rea surely means guilty intent, rather than guilt, does it not?

Professor Hennessy: That fits too, does it not?

Dr Wright: I agree with so much of what Peter says. The crucial thing is to make sure that the structure that should work works. There needs to be a robust Cabinet system, it needs to do its business properly and all that, but, of course, the environment has changed. Your hero and mine, Clement Attlee, would not last five minutes today. I doubt that you could have a Macmillan who goes and reads Trollope in the afternoon. There is something about the relentless environment now, and although you can say, yes, you should not respond to it, and of course, you should not respond to it, the pressures to respond are enormous, because every newspaper is demanding that this day produces a new initiative in relation to the latest issue that has arisen and, of course, you get into this dreadful cycle; but the conclusion from that is not just to repeat the old verities but to be more strategic, to say, "Actually what is the underlying purpose of this Government?", and to stick with that purpose and not be blown off course by all this stuff that happens every day. That is what the centre should be helping you to do, and that is the bit that I would insert.

Q13 Lord Morris of Aberavon: Are they doing it?

Dr Wright: They have been struggling to do it, and some of it is bad, which is all the media management stuff, which is a reflection of some of this that we have been talking about. Insofar as there was an obsession with that, it was always going to end badly, and it did, but insofar as there was a real grappling with the issues of how we get some real cross-cutting stuff inside government, how we recognise that issues do not sit neatly inside departmental bunkers, some of the biggest issues now are essentially cross-government, finding machinery to deal with that, to progress-chase across government, to keep an eye on future issues, and so on. All that is the work of a good centre.

Professor Hennessy: I hope you will have a look, Lord Chairman, too at the state of the secretariats, because they are messy and overlapping now. There is the national security one, the foreign policy and defence one, the global issues one. It is very difficult even for somebody who is nerdy about it and as interested as I am to work out who is doing what. What I think we need, and I have suggested this to the Cabinet Secretary, for example, in the context of the National Security, International Relations and Development Cabinet committee, which is a very important one, it is a very good idea to have an equivalent to the National Security Council in the UK. The trouble is the big one does not meet, it goes down into its little groups, so there is no real change there. But there has been the beginnings of this, there has been a review, which you might want to see the product of, which is completed now, on the relationship of the Cabinet Office to the secret agencies, for example. So one bit of it has been done. But I suggested to the Cabinet Secretary that he has a capability review of how all the inputs to that National Security, International Relations and Development Committee work from the first line of British defence, which is the SIS agents in the field and the people who run them, to the last line, which is HMS Vanguard, the Trident submarine which is out there in the North Atlantic as we speak, with politico-military diplomacy trade-aid soft power in between. This was Gordon Brown's great effort to try and meet some of these concerns and to do what Tony has quite rightly suggested needs doing, but I do not think it is working. His National Economic Council may be working rather better, because that meets all the time and they have got very good people helping them and it is the issue of the hour, apart from the frenzy relating to expenses, and so on, but it is very difficult. I agree with Tony exactly: all you can ever hope to do as a government, because the world is an unforgiving place and an unforeseeable place, is to work out four or five key things you want to do in a Parliament, or preferably two if you think you are going to have eight years, and stick to them. You cannot ring-fence everything, you certainly cannot in terms of public expenditure and all the rest of it. But you should stick to four or five things which preferably are interlocking and reinforce each other and it gives you a kind of ballast, a gyroscope as a government through the difficult times, and the Cabinet Office should be crucial to that; but, of course, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have to set that for themselves. I remember, I re-read it the other day, Victor Rothschild, after the rather bruising experience of being head of the CPRS from 1971 to 1974, gave a lecture, and he said that new governments coming in should be forbidden to do anything for the first six months except listen and get briefings. Ministers can be allowed to do completely harmless things, like open new hospitals or visit the European Parliament, but new governments in the first six months do truly frightful things. I think there is a lot in that. I do not want to be unkind about the political class, but one of the key self-delusions of the political class is that they think that when they are put there with a mandate from the electorate, because it is them it is going to be different, the intractables are going to become the malleables. Aux contraire: every government after another that comes in with a particular majority and, particularly if you have a destiny politician who lacks self-irony like Tony Blair, you are in real trouble, and that is when old sweat civil servants, diplomats, spies, military will say, "Wait a minute. It is not that simple. Calm down". And I am not sure that is happening either, or will happen in a year's time.

Chairman: Lord Norton, perhaps the latest question and the last question that you had in mind it would be helpful to cover, because time will elapse, sadly, in a few minutes.

Q14 Lord Norton of Louth: You have been explaining what has been happening, and in a way the starting point has to be what should be, which is what you have already alluded to. The Cabinet Office itself says its functions are to support the Prime Minister, to support the Cabinet and strengthen the Civil Service. How relevant are those? How appropriate are those? Do they bear any relationship to essentially what you have been explaining has happened over the past 30 years, and if there is that mismatch, that failure to relate to what you think they should be doing, what changes should be made?

Dr Wright: I mentioned the Chakrabarti Review, which I think is very helpful on this because he tries to separate out what he calls the core Cabinet Office functions from what he calls the added value functions. I am not going to go through them, but it is all done elegantly and set out, I think, in an extremely useful way. Some of the core things are things we have been talking about, and there are the additional things which it would be nice for a centre to do but are not absolutely indispensable and some of these things will change at different times, dependent upon how different departments are performing, and so on, but there is an incipient model there that is worth looking at. The problem is, I think, we have had a kind of stop and start arrangement with these endless units. If you went through the last 10 years and just drew up a list of all these different named units—I see you are smiling because someone has had to do it—it is utterly bewildering. I remember years ago, to our Committee, Michael Heseltine, who then was in the Cabinet Office (and we were having this discussion about what on earth he gets up to), described it memorably to me as a bran tub, and I think it has always been the bran tub of government—it is the sort of lucky dip section: everything gets tossed in but you are not really sure what you are going to find when you go there—but it was not doing what a collective centre should do. You have simply got to work out what you think Number 10 ought to be up to properly, or improperly, and what you think the collective centre in the Cabinet Office ought to be doing properly and improperly; that is, separating out clarity and then sticking to it.

Professor Hennessy: If with all the ancient power of this ancient House you could give me one reform for a new government, or this one re-elected, or whatever, I will tell you what it would be, what the big gap is right from the beginning of the last century. I have just been doing a study of horizon scanning, if we can call it that, in Whitehall since the Committee of Imperial Defence was formed in 1904, and there has always been a gap in terms of (Douglas Hurd's phrase about the think-tank) rubbing ministers' noses in reality. We have had a very good Joint Intelligence Committee system—I have already alluded to that—but what we need is to build on the recent advances in horizon scanning and in the Cabinet Office to have a unit, no matter what you call it, that brings it all together, that spares ministers nothing about the state of the world. Richard Mottram, the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said that if he had produced a paper on derivatives, it would not have gone down well, for example, because we do not do own-side intelligence. So with all that huge intelligence apparatus, which is vital, they did not pick up at all the signs of what was making the political weather, and still does and will do for the next 10 years. So that is what I would do. For example, you might want to inquire, my Lord Chairman, why it is that the Joint Intelligence Committee is now meeting only once a fortnight. The world to me has not become a noticeably easier place in the last three months. Why are they meeting only once a fortnight? I think you might actually ask them about that. They certainly have not announced it. People have tried to explain it to me, but I am not at all convinced that it is a good idea they should not; but that is the gap at the centre and, if I was David Cameron and part of these transition talks with the Cabinet Secretary, I would say, "I want you to prepare for day one a huge horizon scan that spares us nothing looking five, 10, 15, 20, if you can 30 years ahead of what we might be facing and give us an idea of the particularly malign combinations that would make real trouble for us that may be just foreseeable, as Braudel said, "the thin wisps of tomorrow that are just visible today". That is what I would do and that would be a classic Cabinet Office function and it would bring together all those strengths that it has in its different parts. So if you could wave your more powerful magic wand, Chairman, and give me one reform, that is what it would be.

Dr Wright: Can I add one very quick thing? That is excellent but the difficulty with it, I think, is that in a sense we have done it. That is what the Strategy Unit did; it produced some excellent broad forward-thinking: what is the future going to hold for us? What does this mean in policy terms? The problem is that it has nil impact on the day to day policy process and it gets ignored by departments because they are busy doing other things; the centre is overwhelmed by whatever the headline is today and Parliament is not interested in it. So, yes, Peter, do that but then do the next bit, which is to say what you do when the first storm comes along.

Q15 Lord Norton of Louth: If one was to encapsulate all in one word what it should be doing, surely the word is "co-ordination". But then what goes beyond that, because. if you have departmentalists and departmentalitis, where is the element of enforcement of ensuring the rig throughout Whitehall?

Professor Hennessy: If you can produce knowledge of the kind that you do not routinely get as a result of this new approach to horizon-scanning, pulling it all together and all the rest of it, which is part of co-ordination and only that, and if, for example—and David Cameron has talked about a National Security Council—that National Security Council week in, week out met every Thursday at 10—because Cabinets do not meet on Thursdays any more—maybe for only half an hour, if the world is relatively serene, to get updates on that, this would feed into a National Security Council, the defence-of-the-realm-in-the-round and British interests and all the rest of it, not least domestic matters too that might impinge, I think that would be a reform. Because the reason the Hankey-Lloyd George reform endured was that it was a combination of process and meetings and back-up; that reform met Tony's requirements in 1916 and Lloyd George, who may have been dodgy but he was a genius—and one of your Members, Kenneth Morgan, said he was an artist in the use of power—knew that this was a first order question getting this right. He was in the middle of the most enormous crisis in a total war and yet he saw the question that you are addressing as a first order one and that is the first thing he did when he became war Prime Minister, set up a War Cabinet and a War Cabinet Secretariat, and it served the country extremely well; and it is the blob of DNA from which all the classic Cabinet Office functions, to which I have been referring, stem. So I think sparing your blushes—I always do this when I appear before Tony's Committee too—I say thank heavens you are interested in this and I hope that you will actually shove reality in the nose of power, if I can put it in a vulgar way, Lord Chairman.

Dr Wright: Your word "enforcement" I think raises a whole lot of different issues which I do not want to speak at length about, but just to say that that is a massively important issue. For example, when the Chakrabarti Review looked at the Cabinet Office and it tried to identify the context in which it operates, one of the things which it identified is this: what it called the constitutional reality—"Permanent secretaries have stronger lines of policy and management accountability to their Ministers than to the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service." That is the context in which trying to do things at the centre rubs against the realities of how we do government and politics; so you are on to something rather big in talking about enforcement. That is why Civil Service reform has been endlessly around because it is quite difficult for a Cabinet Secretary charged with Civil Service reform to deliver reform across a very disaggregated system.

Chairman: We do not blush about our blushes, but a final question from Lord Shaw.

Q16 Lord Shaw of Northstead: How would you characterise the changes that have taken place in the Cabinet Office and indeed in central government itself and what effect has that had on parliamentary accountability at the centre? Arising out of that, of course, what have been the reasons that you give for the changes that have taken place? Finally, if a Prime Minister is determined to perform as a President with a presidential style of government how could anybody stop him?

Professor Hennessy: Can I start with the last bit first because I think it is crucial? Cabinet Ministers are there to say, "Wait a minute." The only sprinkler system that the British system of government has—because for all the laws that we have there are no laws that cover proper conduct in the Cabinet room—if the Cabinet collectively or sufficient of them is not prepared to say, "Oh, come off it" or "Are you sure?" you cannot do anything about it. The press cannot be a substitute; the Houses of Parliament cannot be a substitute; the Civil Service cannot be a substitute. If the Downing Street 22 do not act as the sprinkler system on an over-mighty or potentially over-mighty Prime Minister nobody else can or will, and that is the first order human requirement on the Cabinet. Why I question this, it is very difficult for even a nerd like me who is interested in this, to produce the cartography of a changing scene; it is very, very difficult to keep up with it. Given that under the Blair style of government you had a kind of informal "Hello, you guys" system running in parallel to the formal one it was extremely difficult to do the cartography. I think that the current Prime Minister is almost impossible to fathom in all sorts of ways—a very, very interesting case of premiership. How he operates—we hear all sorts of things about tantrums and all the rest of it and we know how he operated in the Treasury, and we were always interested in the degree to which he would just run that across into Number 10. But you cannot really run a country with about eight key figures; you can just about get away with it but I do not think it was satisfactory in the Treasury; but also how he would deal with the stuff that flies in unexpectedly. Each Prime Minister, as Tony says, sees this as a problem—the weakness at the centre. If you had ex-Prime Ministers before you they would say, "What is all this about over might in my premiership? If you sit where we sat it does not look over-mighty to me. What instruments did I have?" They always see it in a different way, from a different perspective. I suppose the bit that is missing in all this cornucopia of change, this kaleidoscopic change that we have been discussing this morning, goes back to Walter Bagehot writing about a very different world in the 19th century—Sir Robert Peel—and he said: "The great genius of Sir Robert Peel as Prime Minister was he always kept a mind in reserve"—that was the phrase—so he had something in reserve to cope with the unforeseen, the difficult and the truly stretching. The problem, which I think lurks in your question and indeed in the territory we have been covering today is that they are worn out; it is not just the overload of the 1970s that we have talked about, they are absolutely worn out. They live off their nerves and they are much more tribal than they used to be. That is what I meant about the risen without trace generation; they have not got out enough, they had not been in professions long enough before they came into the House of Commons. It means that when things go wrong they talk to their own kind and they cannot listen, or do not want to listen to what is going on around them; they get immensely cut off. And for all the talk of the people and understanding people and endless focus groups and all the rest of it, I think the political class we have managed to create for ourselves is a severe problem. So I come back to where I began, that the human problem, which is extremely difficult for you to opine on or to write a report on, is absolutely central to everything you are doing, and unless—and heaven knows what we do about that—there is improvement there all the fine-tuning in the world, all the capability reviews in the world are not going to help that much. That is a cheerful thought on which to end, is it not, Chairman?

Q17  Chairman: I will ask Dr Wright whether he thinks there is any such thing as a political class.

Dr Wright: I do. I was going to rattle off a few bad things with which you will probably agree: too many laws, too many ministers, too much frenetic activity of a purposeless kind inside government, too much responsiveness to an environment that is pushing in all the time, and the rise of a political class which has been referred to, which I think is a real issue. Career politicians are the people who have known nothing but politics, who are dependent upon the system; the enfeeblement of Parliament is part of the story. There is a whole agenda of stuff there that we have to get hold of. Could I just give you one positive thing, though? I see my role in life as being Peter's representative on earth! He badgered me years ago on the basis that the key bit of the centre, which is Number 10, the Prime Minister, is not directly accountable to Parliament. Yes you have parliamentary questions, but unlike other ministers there is no Select Committee on the Prime Minister; he does not have to come and answer to a Committee of Parliament. Peter kept on at me about this and I in turn kept on at the Prime Minister of the day about it, saying, "Could you not come as part of the accountability of the centre to come and give evidence to a Select Committee?" And I thought we had him because we tried to find something for which uniquely the Prime Minister was responsible, and that was the annual report that the government had produced at the time, which was the Prime Minister's document, a cross government document. We had a series of exchanges and I thought "we have actually pinned him down here; he cannot wriggle out of this". I had been told that it was constitutionally impossible and then I thought we were getting there; then they abolished the annual report so that we could not do it. But we returned to it through the Liaison Committee and Tony Blair finally announced that he was going to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee and of course that has now I think become a constitutional feature and that, in its own small way, is quite a constitutional breakthrough because it will never be altered—it will only be improved upon. So you have to capture your gains where you can find them and bottle them.

Q18 Lord Peston: Just to give us a perspective, Peter, if I could take you back to the late 1970s you may remember that Jim Callaghan made a speech, I think written by Peter Jay, which essentially espoused what I would call naive monetarism. The important point, upon which I would like your view, is that none of us knew that speech was going to be made, so how the Cabinet could possibly have said, "That is nonsense" I do not know because the speech was just made. But more to the point, since I was advising at the Department of Prices, I pointed out immediately that if monetarism is true we do not need an incomes policy because the monetarists say the economy works perfectly, so we would have had no winter of discontent and no Mrs Thatcher; and equally we did not need the Department of Prices where I was earning a living. So there is nothing new about Prime Ministers pre-empting things by saying things and no one can do anything else about it.

Professor Hennessy: There is a lot in that. Also, Tom McNally wrote the bulk of that speech but the key paragraph was Peter Jay's, and it led Denis Healey, who was very cross, was he not, to say that one rule in political life is never get your son-in-law to write speeches for you—I remember Denis saying that. But to be fair to Jim, of course on certain things he was very prime ministerial, not least on nuclear weapons policy, which did not come to even a formal Cabinet committee. But in severe crisis he practised classic Cabinet government. You could argue—some would do—that he had no alternative, given the difference of views in that Cabinet in November 1976, as you and Lord Rodgers remember only too well. But to Jim's great credit it was collective, as Lord Morris remembers too—it was genuinely collective. But Jim, like all Prime Ministers, operated twin-track. But the problem after 1997 is that it was not really twin-track, Cabinet became the recipient of presentations, and I remember a senior official saying to me that presentations are never an analysis. That is the problem. Jim had been around the block a lot and he knew how to operate. Just as he used his Policy Unit for certain things and the Central Policy Review Staff for others and the career Civil Service for others. Jim was a grown up about all these things. But I do take your point and that will be remembered at Blackpool, that paragraph, for as long as Jim is remembered—absolutely.

Dr Wright: There is a moment at the beginning of the Blair government, told in Andrew Rawnsley's book—and I think everyone assumes that it is true—where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown meet on the sofa in the presence of Robin Butler to announce what they are going to do about monetary policy and the Bank of England and Robin Butler says, "But you cannot do that without telling the Cabinet; this is huge stuff, you cannot do it", and they said it would be all right. And of course "it will be all right" went on being all right for a lot of other things as well. And, as Peter said, we paid a terrible price for that around Iraq because Cabinet government failed us. Cabinet government is not the whole story—we need to do all the things that we have been talking about—but it is a sine qua non of decent government in this country that you have to have a robust government full of big people in their own right. The only consolation is the very moment when Cabinet government is announced as having disappeared it tends to reappear, and I suspect that we are probably at a moment of imminent re-emergence.

Chairman: Dr Wright and Professor Hennessy, can I thank you most warmly on behalf of the Committee for joining us this morning and for the fascinating evidence which you have given us; thank you very much indeed.

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