Wednesday 15 January 2020 6:26 am

Time to cull the ministers who sit around the cabinet table

Lauren McEvatt is managing director of Morpeth Consulting, and a former government adviser.

Walter Bagehot, one of the fathers of our modern constitutional structure, believed that the cabinet was the “efficient secret” of the British state. But what if the institution is now too large to run the country efficiently?

I agree with the assessment from chief Number 10 aide Dominic Cummings that the cabinet as it stands is too big to function, and that its size creates silo working across the government, which stalls progress.

The idea has developed that two years or so as a junior minister means it’s time for an MP to attend cabinet with a title bump and little of substance added to their operational brief. 

These are not personnel management methods which promote a well-functioning machine. Positions of power within the British state are not cookies to be given out to favoured sons and daughters — they are operational roles which require experience, discipline, commitment. 

So here’s my solution. Reduce the number of both cabinet ministers and people who attend cabinet. Bolster the cabinet sub-committee structures to include the voices of junior ministers as and when required. And reform government departments so they can work together under a slimmed-down command structure. 

Consider the merger that has been mooted, between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. 

Merging these departments could result in a unified international voice at the top, which may help to create a more coherent and joined-up foreign policy strategy, and better procurement of services in its delivery. 

The situation now isn’t working as well as it should. These departments share two of their regional focus ministers, and there are three Lords ministers between them. There are two more regional ministers in the Foreign Office, one for Europe and the Americas and one for the Asia Pacific region. 

The US, Australia, and the EU are three of our biggest partners in aid delivery, so not having these ministers sit across both departments seems an error. The absence of the Asia Pacific minister from the Department for International Development creates an additional missed opportunity, given our participation in significant aid delivery across that region. 

This disjointed leadership approach results in a lack of single command structure in our overseas missions, and the imbalance in budgets creates gross disparity in pay across the civil servants from both departments.

The upcoming integrated defence, security and foreign policy review provides an opportunity to develop this further. The potential for a backlash from government partners would not be to the principle of streamlining, but rather to fears that the government would attempt reform with insufficient preparation — and fail.

Previous reforms have been half-hearted and chaotic. Successful civil service reform is a moon landing — you get one shot to get it right or you’ll spend decades tinkering around the edges for little gain. But if planned and executed well, there is a huge amount to gain in considering merged departments, restructuring, and reducing the number of seats at cabinet.

There is a theory that civil servants are running amok within their departments, and that, since ministers represent the will of the people against the tyranny of these ever-present out-of-touch pencil pushers, creating more ministers is therefore the answer.  

This is a miscalculation. I have worked with some excellent civil servants, and with some who are clearly suboptimal. There is one thing that unifies both kinds: the ministerial direction of the government. If it is unclear, chaos follows. If it is well organised, efficient, and bold, then Global Britain really will be a renewed force on the world stage.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.