Earlier this month, four new non-executive directors were appointed to the board of the Cabinet Office, at the head of which sits Michael Gove. He will have no difficulty recognising them when it next meets – three of the quartet, anyway.
The first is Henry de Zoete, formerly a special adviser to Gove at Education, working alongside Dominic Cummings. The second is Gisela Stuart, another old Gove hand: the one-time Labour Minister served alongside him as Vote Leave’s co-convenor. The third is Simone Finn, who served with Henry Newman as one of Francis Maude’s SpAds when the latter was Cabinet Office Minister. He is now working in the same capacity for Gove.
Evidence, some claim, that Gove is building up his own power base to rival Boris Johnson’s. Given the two men’s tangled history, and former’s shimmering footwork as a Whitehall player, it’s indeed tempting to see him as a black-uniformed Richard III to Boris Johnson’s merry, fading Edward IV – awaiting his moment. Certainly, Gove, like other politicians, will lose no opportunity to consolidate his position.
However, the implications of the appointments are at both more prosaic and more compelling. The fourth appointment offers a way into understanding them. The final name on that new non-exec list is Bernard Hogan-Howe – an old Theresa May rather than a Gove hand. What’s he doing there? The answer takes us on a journey from Britain’s national security to the coming Coronavirus inquiry, and a power struggle at the heart of government.
Welcome to the wonderful world of the Cabinet Office. “In one respect at least, it’s like the British constitution,” one old hand told ConservativeHome. “No-one would have designed it. It is very largely an accident.” Quite so. Have a look at what makes it up. Government property, the digital service, Veterans’ affairs, the GeoSpatial Commission: all of these pile up higgledy-piggledy in a department “supported by 22 agencies and public bodies”.
Now turn to its Ministers. Gove heads it up – or rather, he doesn’t. Boris Johnson is first in line and Minister for the civil service. Jacob Rees-Mogg is in there, because the First Parliamentary Counsel, in charge of Government legislation, is there too. So is Chloe Smith, Minister for the constitution. So is Amanda Milling, the Party Chairman. So is Johnny Mercer, in government to deliver for veterans.
The Prime Minister is in charge, then? Well, only in the sense that he’s First Lord of the Treasury. In other words, he doesn’t really run the blessed thing. Gove, then? Not necessarily. Have a look at the management team. On it sit the Cabinet Secretary, the Civil Service’s Chief Operating Officer, and the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Gove has no real executive authority over the last, and much else.
Some of our readers will already have given up trying to wade though this alphabet soup. And no wonder. A worrying thought pops up: perhaps no-one is really in charge. “Michael is no slouch at his paperwork,” one source said. “But he recently stumbled across an entire secretariat that, for some reason, no-one had bothered to tell him about.”
Another insider speaks of battling for weeks to get hold of an organogram of the Office. After studying it closely, he was none the wiser (nor necessarily, as the old legal saw has it, better informed). Now comes even more troubling thought: perhaps this is the way that the civil service wants it. An ex-Minister has a less conspiratorial explanation. “This is a house that Jeremy Heywood built,” he said. “And no-one else can seem to make it work.”
Actually, the core function of the Cabinet Office is clear enough, once one has battled through the labels and titles. It’s there to join up the work of the Government and make sure that its agenda is implemented – particularly when it comes to anything that cross-cuts, such as digital services. Much depends on the people involved. When Damian Green was First Secretary of State, for example he grabbed social care and took it into the Cabinet Office.
But if the Office really is like the British constitution, a question follows: is it still up to the job? As ever, there are two potential answers – one revolutionary, one evolutionary. The revolutionary option would hive off some functions and send them spinning away elsewhere. For example, the Constitution should arguably have its own department, given the challenges of forming a new post-Brexit order, and a possible second Scottish referendum.
The evolutionary option would fire up the engines of intervention, concentrating the Office on ensuring that the departments deliver the Government’s agenda. One old hand said that the civil service is now so geared to announcements and social media, plus arbitrary and changing demands from the centre, that it has lost the capacity to research, think about and master policy.
Nick Timothy used to make the same point about the Home Office when he served there. (As coincidence would have it, he has just been appointed as a non-executive director at Education; and ConHome is told that Rachel Wolf, another old Education hand, is set to become one at Work and Pensions.) He, the new Cabinet Office non-execs, and others will strive to crank the departments up to deliver the Government’s priorities.
So far, so dry. But real politics is buried in this arcane story. This site has no animus against Mark Sedwill – who has neither the time nor, doubtless, the inclination to respond to the anonymous briefings aimed at him. But what you will read here you will also see elsewhere: a drip-feed of claims that the Cabinet Secretary has too many jobs, lacks Heywood’s administrative dexterity, and hasn’t gripped the Coronavirus crisis.
Evidently, the inquiry, when it comes, will see politicians, scientists and civil servants passing the parcel of blame – each hoping that the music doesn’t stop when they are holding it. “Two big parts of the state have failed to deliver on Covid,” one source said. “The first is Public Health England. The second is the Cabinet Office.” Andrew Murrison’s article on this site earlier this week was an early roll of the tumbrils for the first.
Some in government would like the guillotine to lop the head off the second. This seems already to be happening: Number Ten is preparing to absorb the implementation function in the Cabinet Office. The Vote Leave faction preference would be to carry on where this leaves off, mirroring the post-Sajid Javid absorption of the top of the Treasury into Number Ten. Others think that moving functions to Number Ten is merely a Titanic deckchair shuffle.
“There are three main centres of power in Government,” another source told ConHome. “The Prime Minister, the Treasury and, sitting between them, the Cabinet Office. Why disturb the balance?” The last word is that ex-Minister’s. “The key to Cabinet Office reform is letting the Minister in charge get on with it. Either Johnson trusts Gove, in which case he should back him to the hilt. Or he doesn’t – and should get in someone else.”