Sue Cameron recently wrote that a four-foot long extension has been fitted on to the Cabinet table, in order to accommodate the 32 Ministers entitled to sit at it. The detail encapsulated the abandonment not of Cabinet Government – that went a long time ago – but of the pretence of Cabinet Government.
No-one claims that important decisions in David Cameron's Government are usually made by the Cabinet. But if the Cabinet is too big to be an effective one, the body that often substitutes for it is too small – the four-member Quad, in which Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are evenly represented, in arithmetical defiance of the balance of numbers in the Commons.
In short, there is a Cabinet-shaped gap somewhere between the vast and unwieldy 32-member body which claims the title, and the tiny, exclusive Quad. Cameron needs a real Cabinet to fill that gap, and to help build a sense of common endeavour between him and his Tory Ministers. The benefits would flow down to Conservative backbenchers, and perhaps further.
A real Cabinet is a body in which business is considered and decisions are made between colleagues: it follows that such as body must discuss ideas and policy. (Enoch Powell, who believed in his day that the Cabinet was already too big, wanted its members to dine together.) It is a missing link in Cameron's attempts to improve relations with his Party.
Even before the recruitment of Jo Johnson and the new Policy Board, Number 10 was at pains to stress how much effort it puts it into trying to make them better – regular gatherings of the Parliamentary Party, repeated meetings with Ministers, the Prime Minister's weekly trip to the members
dining room after each PMQ session…plus the re-introduction of Political Cabinet.
This takes place before the formal Cabinet meeting each Tuesday morning. So doesn't the latter fill the gap I'm describing? I think not. Political Cabinet is essentially the enlargement and extension of the daily 8.30am Downing Street morning meeting (at which advisers are present). What's needed is something more formal and collegiate, as follows:
- The Prime Minister would meet weekly with an informal Inner Cabinet consisting of senior Conservative colleagues.
- James Forsyth suggested that Cameron did so at one point, and reported that the Inner Cabinet consisted of seven people.
- This seems to me to be approaching the right number – ten would be the maximum – and should contain the following "Magnificent Seven":
- The Chancellor of the Exchequer.
- The Foreign Secretary.
- The Home Secretary.
- The Leader of the Commons.
- The Chairman of the Party.
- The Chief Whip.
- The other ex-Party leader who is still in the Commons (Iain Duncan Smith.)
My selection criteria are rather formal – that's why I write "The Chief Whip", for example, rather than "Sir George Young". It may be objected that Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and Philip Hammond have a better political feel, and are more important political players, than Sir George, Andrew Lansley and Grant Shapps.
Collectively, that's probably true. However, it's beside the point – which is that the claim that Cameron has simply recast Tony Blair's Sofa Government, with his Etonian and public school friends playing the roles once acted out by Alastair Campbell and Sir John Scarlett, is an open wound. David Davis's surgical strike yesterday was aimed at it.
Such an Inner Cabinet would help to heal it. Neither Theresa May nor Iain Duncan Smith are in the business of telling the Prime Minister what he wants to hear. Loyal to a fault though William Hague is, this is true of him, too. Duncan Smith provides a bridge to the right of the party, but his real value here would be as part of shift from individual to collective leadership.
The three most senior Ministers make this Inner Cabinet simply because they're the three most senior Ministers. The Leader of the Commons and the Chief Whip are there because of the vulnerability of the Conservative part of the Coalition to the rest of the Commons. The Party Chairman is there because campaigning should follow decisions.
His presence should make it clear that I'm not suggesting that this Inner Cabinet could or should substitute for the Whitehall Business Sausage Machine that Cabinet has become. It is simply a return to what Cabinet originally was – a gathering of colleagues to give government shape and purpose. After all, this one has been weak on both.
I would add two more people, which would reach my limit of ten. One would be the Leader of the Lords. The second would be the Chairman of the '22, at least for part of the meeting. This would emphasise that Cameron and Conservative MPs really are "all in this together". The Inner Cabinet could meet each Wednesday in Cameron's Commons office after his dining room lunch.