At the heart of government: Gus O'Donnell (wearing a jacket) was at David Cameron's side as Cabinet Secretary ©Tom Pilston WPA Pool/Getty Images

Cabinet secretaries—minuting the frenzy

In Whitehall one person above all has a ringside seat watching the shambles at the heart of government
February 14, 2017

The Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries by Ian Beesley (Routledge, £90)

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The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government by Anthony Seldon and Jonathan Meakin (Biteback, £25)

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When Ivan Rogers abruptly resigned in January as Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, the fallout reverberated throughout Whitehall and Westminster. His outspoken farewell letter to his staff urging them to continue challenging “ill-founded argument and muddled thinking,” and never to be afraid of speaking truth to power caused outrage among right-wing politicians. They claimed it showed that Rogers had not been a politically neutral civil servant, adding that he had taken sides in the Brexit debate by suggesting that it could take the UK 10 years to leave the EU. There were demands that his successor should be someone who would take a hard Brexit line—possibly a politician.

Much fury ensued, with muttering about unprecedented chaos, but in reality the strains that showed were not new. The row raised the age-old dilemma about whether it is possible for mandarins to remain impartial in giving policy advice when they disagree with a government’s political aims. Civil servants always say it is, while their ministerial masters sometimes doubt it. Mutual suspicion on this point has often led to strained relations, adding to the chaos and uncertainty that routinely lurks inside No 10.

One hundred years have passed since Maurice Hankey wrote in despair about “the scrambles of ministers to get their pet subjects discussed at Cabinet meetings... the endless rambling discussions with no one to give a decision,” and “the humiliating and dangerous doubts of what the decision was, or whether there had been a decision at all.” Hankey, a man with a passion for order and for power, became the first cabinet secretary in 1916, and held the post for 22 years. More influential than most ministers, it was Hankey who began to impose discipline on the political pandemonium during the First World War—but it was always an uphill fight.

Today the cabinet secretary is the most powerful official in Whitehall. On the face of it, the job has not changed much since Hankey’s time. He must prepare the Cabinet agenda, suggest to the prime minister what points to raise in discussion and then record what decisions have been taken. Yet as well as serving the Cabinet as a whole, he is also the man always at the prime minister’s shoulder offering support and advice. His office is generally nearby. Ian Beesley, the author of The Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries, reckons that the role is the fifth great office of state, after the prime minister, chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary. Jeremy Heywood, who currently holds the post, says that the cabinet secretary is someone “who helps make things happen,” a description that reflects Whitehall’s growing emphasis on delivery as well as traditional policy-making.
"One constant over the last 100 years has been the battle to stop prime ministers taking on US-style presidential powers"
Yet one can easily imagine Heywood wryly recalling Hankey’s despairing words as he surveys the present government. The rambling discussions over Brexit, the skirmishes between Cabinet ministers pushing their pet visions of the UK’s trading future and the doubts about policy decisions caused by politically appointed special advisers in Downing Street, who brief on the prime minister’s behalf without checking with Whitehall. The miracle is that the 11 men who have held the post have managed to keep the government show on the road, and keep it democratic.

It was John Hunt, cabinet secretary from 1973-79, who admitted that government was “cumbersome,” “difficult” and “a bit of a shambles,” but who also insisted that it must be, “so far as is possible a democratic and accountable shambles.” Hunt was famed for exerting an iron grip at a time when many feared Britain was becoming ungovernable. Reputedly, he was the model for the manipulative and over-mighty Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister.

The Sir Humphrey image still resonates.  Some feel that cabinet secretaries and other top civil servants wield too much power without accountability. Margaret Hodge, the former head of the Public Accounts Committee, argues that the mandarins should be more directly accountable to MPs. In contrast, former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell—who clashed repeatedly with Hodge during his time advising David Cameron—feared that if officials were forced to reveal private discussions with ministers, they would lose the confidence of their political masters. Instead, ministers would turn for advice to political appointees and the long tradition of an impartial civil service would be eroded. (The controversy over some of the highly political official appointments currently being made on the other side of the Atlantic demonstrates the downside of going too far in this direction.) Still, dealing with such demands for greater accountability and a higher public profile is changing the job of the modern cabinet secretary.

Their role at the apex of the British government is charted in two fascinating books, Anthony Seldon’s The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government, and Beesley’s Official History. The first rattles along; the second, a mighty 700 pages covering the six men who held the post between 1947 and 2002, is packed with the kind of detail that will be invaluable to anyone interested in the history of Whitehall. Until now remarkably little has been written about the personalities or the power of these shadowy eminences. These books do much to illuminate the role of the cabinet secretary at the right hand of successive prime ministers and give a rare view of how the top of government really works.

One constant has been the battle to stop prime ministers taking on US-style presidential powers. David Lloyd George, the prime minister who brought in Hankey, also introduced a parallel group of personal advisers housed in a hut in the No 10 garden. The “garden suburb,” as it was known, was a rudimentary prime minister’s department, helping to initiate policy, write speeches and monitor other parts of government. Manned by the forerunners of today’s special advisers, it was outside the direct control of Hankey. His misgivings reflected the conflict thrown up by the dual role of all British cabinet secretaries: on the one hand they must serve the whole Cabinet and safeguard the principle of collective ministerial responsibility against prime ministers who would prefer to go solo; yet they must also act as chief adviser and loyal confidante to the prime minister. It is a conflict that has broken out in Whitehall again and again over the last 100 years.

Not even the most senior people in Whitehall realised how fiercely the battle was being fought by Richard Wilson, Tony Blair’s cabinet secretary between 1998 and 2002. Beesley reveals how Wilson “fired a broadside” at his own prime minister, saying that the Blair government had a “dangerous view that conventions are for wimps.” In another note to Blair in 1999, described by Beesley as “one of the most powerful examples of truth unto power on record,” Wilson wrote: “Do not try to use the policy unit to run the government; do not attempt to divorce permanent secretaries from their Cabinet ministers; do not be tempted by Napoleonic models, shifting resources... from the Cabinet Office to No 10; above all, do not spend too much time on foreign affairs. It is of course fun and much easier than domestic policy. But the FCO is only one of 20 departments and wins you the fewest votes.” It was courageous stuff. It makes the supposedly outspoken comments of Rogers pale into insignificance.

Wilson, described by Seldon as one of the finest mandarins of his age, managed to keep collective Cabinet responsibility alive—but only just. He did it through the use of Cabinet committees and by firmly refusing Blair’s offer to put him in charge of a merged Downing Street/Cabinet Office—a prime minister’s department. Throughout all this, Blair’s style of governing—relying on powerful political appointees and conducting business with the utmost informality—certainly accorded with Hankey’s definition of chaotic. Described as a “running levée” held in Blair’s den or in the Downing Street flat, meetings moved from one topic to another while courtiers came and went. Record-keeping became extremely hard.
"Richard Wilson fired a broadside at Tony Blair, saying his government had a dangerous view that conventions are for wimps"
Maybe that was Blair’s intention. His refusal to be bound by Whitehall convention revealed itself early, when in 1997 he made “Orders in Council,” which gave two political aides, Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell, powers to direct permanent civil servants—powers ordinarily reserved to ministers. Andrew Turnbull, Wilson’s successor, reckoned that Blair and his advisers felt that Cabinet government and collective responsibility would “get in the way, hence the creation of sofa government.” Seldon comments that it was as if “Blair wanted to wind the clock back to Lloyd George’s suburb.” Certainly, Blair’s informal meetings on Iraq were not minuted and Wilson was excluded from nearly all of them. At the one Iraq meeting he attended just before leaving office in 2002, he was “startled” to find how advanced the plans were for the 2003 invasion. By the time Turnbull took over, it was too late. Had the conventions on Cabinet government been followed maybe British participation in the catastrophic war could have been averted.

Perhaps an even more spectacular failure was Suez. In the summer of 1956, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Suez canal. Norman Brook, the cabinet secretary, had urged that all efforts to reach agreement by peaceful methods should be exhausted before force was used. For 40 years, the key task of Cabinet secretaries had been to record the discussions and decisions of the Cabinet. But when it met to discuss war in Suez, Brook wrote: “Note not taken.”

Ultimately, Anthony Eden had to resign. He had lied to the Commons in saying he had not known Israel would invade Egypt. Edward Heath, then Tory chief whip, recalled being in No 10 late in 1956: “Sir Norman Brook, the cabinet secretary, came through the door from the Cabinet room where he had been seeing the prime minister, looking like an old samurai who had just been asked to fall on his sword. We paused as Brook said: ‘He’s told me to destroy all the relevant documents. I must go and get it done.’” Later cabinet secretaries criticised Brook for following these orders. Heath’s description of his demeanour suggests he knew that he should not have put loyalty to his prime minister above commitment to the Cabinet. It was a rare lapse among the holders of Whitehall’s highest office.

Margaret Thatcher liked to take key decisions at small meetings rather than letting them go to Cabinet or even Cabinet committees. Robert Armstrong, her Cabinet Secretary from 1979 to 1987, resisted the change but things reached such a pass that Nigel Lawson, her chancellor, came to see Cabinet as a chance to relax because “nothing important happened there.” When Thatcher moved to introduce more personal advisers into No 10, a leader in the Times spoke of “an over-mighty premier” and referred once again back to “Lloyd George’s garden suburb.” As it was, Charles Powell, her private secretary, and Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, may have started out as impartial civil servants but by the end they were her men and immensely influential. She resisted all attempts to have them moved on, in line with normal civil service career planning.

As with other prime ministers, her imperiousness did her no good in the end. The Westland scandal (1985-86) damaged her badly. Michael Heseltine, her defence secretary, dramatically resigned from Cabinet saying, according to Armstrong’s minutes, that there had been “no collective responsibility on the matter” and a “breakdown in the propriety of Cabinet discussions.” Armstrong covered for Thatcher, appearing personally before MPs instead of Ingham or Powell—something it would be much harder for a cabinet secretary to get away with today. Yet after Westland, Armstrong reinstated Cabinet government and Cabinet committees. As Seldon says, this was one of his great achievements, though maintaining the status quo was “a constant battle.”

Relief came when Thatcher was ousted and replaced by John Major. He and Robin Butler shared not only a love of cricket, but also a belief in consensus. Tellingly, Seldon writes: “History can judge the seven-year Butler-Major relationship as one of the most effective of the 100 years.”

When not fighting to curb presidential ambitions in their prime ministers, cabinet secretaries really have overseen some remarkable transitions in policy—despite initial misgivings about their neutrality by incoming governments. Brook, thought to have been a Tory who disapproved of nationalisation, oversaw the radical changes brought in by Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, including a programme for widespread public ownership. O’Donnell was cabinet secretary to Blair and then to his rival Gordon Brown, before acting as midwife to a Tory-led coalition under Cameron.

Sometimes cabinet secretaries have been impartial almost to a fault. Hankey was such a stickler that he told George V he “made a point of not voting,” so as to keep a “detached point of view.” When in 1931, the King told him that he really ought to vote for the national government, Hankey asked: “Is that a command, sire?” Told it was, Hankey replied: “Very well, sire.”

They may have been impartial but to some degree all cabinet secretaries have exercised power. They often play a crucial part in reshuffles—Brook, for example, was beside Harold Macmillan when he sacked seven of his Cabinet in the night of the long knives in 1962. Yet their influence can be almost imperceptible. How do you decide where good bureaucratic housekeeping ends and command and control begins? What could possibly be sinister about preparing the Cabinet agenda and writing up the minutes?

Hankey boasted that he sometimes wrote the minutes on the train from Surrey before Cabinet had actually met. Long before he became prime minister, Harold Wilson had been a statistician in the civil service. He recalled Edward Bridges, the then cabinet secretary (1938-1946), saying he had not been able to make head or tail of the discussion in Cabinet. He gave Wilson his notes and ordered him to write the minutes, saying: “This is your subject. You know what they ought to have decided presumably. Write the minutes on those lines and no-one will ever question it.” Nor did they. As the Whitehall ditty goes: “The great ones have gone to their drinks and their dinner/the Secretary stays getting thinner and thinner/Wracking his brains to record and report/What he thinks that they think they ought to have thought.”

Yet between the power plays, what sticks in the mind from these books are the everyday stories. It is John Hunt before the Tokyo summit, writing to say that no, Thatcher would not require 20 Japanese karate ladies as bodyguards. There’s the ageing Wilson having to be given brandies to sustain him through PM’s questions. There’s Norman Brook moving the placements round the Cabinet table because Heath couldn’t stand the glares of Enoch Powell.

Henry Kissinger once said that what the British cabinet secretary did was to make ministers appear better than they could possibly be. In the age of the internet, 24/7 media and fake news that may be too tall an order. If they can carry on making things happen while reining in prime ministers and ensuring that civil servants can, without fear or favour, speak the truth for the next 100 years, they will be doing well indeed.