The idea that the Cabinet is chock-full of brain-dead non-entities is a charge levelled with increasing frequency of late. But it is nothing new—anyone of a certain age can remember a 1980s Spitting Image sketch. Margaret Thatcher is dining out with her colleagues and orders steak, wherein the waitress asks “What about the vegetables?” and she replies, “Oh, they’ll have the same as me.”
Yet, in retrospect, some of those then around the table can hardly be written off as bootlicking political lightweights: Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson were responsible for huge changes to the structure and running of the British economy; Leon Brittan helped see his boss safely through the miners’ strike, as well as steering 1984’s landmark Police and Criminal Evidence Bill onto the statute book; Norman Fowler spearheaded the bill to make seatbelts compulsory, and persuaded Thatcher to take educating the public about Aids seriously—policies that saved many thousands of lives.
True, in the light of Dominic Cummings’s revelations about how government actually works (or doesn’t work) under Boris Johnson, it may be a little difficult to believe that, as the Cabinet Manual puts it, the Cabinet is “the ultimate arbiter of all government policy.” And, as always, there are amateurish ministers like Gavin Williamson and those who seem to blunder from one day to the next.
However, it remains the case that, in their own fiefdoms at least, the barons may well have no less (and, given the prime minister’s notorious lack of interest in the detail, possibly more) authority than the king.
One such is surely Michael Gove, who, by dint of his position in the Cabinet Office, is responsible for the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill that will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as well as the even more controversial Elections Bill, whose voter ID provisions will, say its critics, effectively disenfranchise millions of voters.
Other barons include, for good or ill, home secretary Priti Patel and communities secretary Robert Jenrick, responsible for bringing in what could be historic changes to this country’s immigration and planning regimes respectively.
And then, of course, there’s Sajid Javid and the smooth, sure-footed Rishi Sunak, both of them involved in an increasingly epic love-hate triangle with Johnson. Cummings’s hopes that No 10 could assert control over the Treasury now seem pretty forlorn, and the chancellor’s forthcoming Budget update in October looks likely to set the tone on tax and spend for the rest of the government’s term. Meanwhile his predecessor, newly returned to the top table, is clearly in a good position to demand sufficient resources for a major Health and Care Bill, as well as for the long-awaited reform to social care.
The Cabinet as a collective, then, may not count for much these days. But it still contains a bunch of biggish beasts, with to-do lists to match.