It is reported today that the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler claims that, in the first eight months of the Blair Government, the Cabinet only took one actual decision. I can believe it.
First, Tony Blair had found it necessary in Opposition to adopt a powerful system of control to restore credibility to a party that too often was feuding with itself – and he simply carried this style from Westminster to Whitehall. Second, he had never previously been a Minister, let alone a Prime Minister – so he had absolutely no experience of Cabinet government.
From 1974-1978, I was a Special Adviser to a member of the Cabinet in the Governments of Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan. I read many minutes of Cabinet meetings and clearly there were debates and sometimes strong disagreements. In the Cabinet meetings that discussed the IMF crisis of 1976, there was real debate and alternative policies were submitted and considered.
Flash forward to 1998. I was then Head of Research at the Communication Workers Union and I accompanied my General Secretary Derek Hodgson as he had a series of private meetings with around half of the Cabinet Ministers in the Blair Government to argue against the suggested privatisation of Royal Mail. One of my abiding memories of those meetings was the clear message we were given that these matters simply were not discussed by, let alone decided in, Cabinet. No Cabinet member put this more starkly that the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
Lord Butler states that Cabinet government has been on the decline since the end of the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher dealt it a major blow and Tony Blair has almost extinguished it. Will Prime Minister Gordon Brown adopt a more collegiate style? Let’s see …