9 AUGUST 1975, Page 18

Cabinet makers

Terry Pitt

Cabinet Studies edited by Valentine Herman and James Alt (Macmillan 610.00) What a joy it is to read about the Callinet in a study which does not mention Richard Crossman. Yet how shallow it all seems without him. Two young academics from the University of Essex have brought together a number of essays on the subject; most chapters have already been published elsewhere; little in the book is new — yet there is a fascination in re-reading the works of Roy Jenkins, George Brown, "Rab" Butler, Lord Thorneycroft and documents from a formidable array of academics on the subject of how the British Cabinet works.

It is best to begin at the beginning and admit the awful truth. It does not work. Whatever work it does is at the behest of the Prime Minister and his own chosen balance of §enior Ministers. If you doubt this, simply take a clean sheet of paper and try to name the present Cabinet. Try to name the 1960 Macmillan Cabinet. Try, for that matter, to remember the names of a half dozen of the hundred or so Ministers who have "resigned" or been "replaced" in the last two decades.

I am constantly amazed at the structure of Cabinet chosen by the leader with the Queen's Commission. Lord Mills and Lord Houghton are good examples of those chosen to hold "co-ordinating" office, whilst all around had work to do. There is no evidence that either was inefficient, yet there is equally no evidence that either made any mark on the body politic. There are countless examples of people being appointed to the Cabinet who have no other claim than their personal support of the Prink Minister of the day.

If my memory serves me correctly, the most startling statistic on Cabinet Government was produced by an American academic who made a judgment on Washington and Whitehall by simply doing his arithmetic. What he did, however, was to make an assessment of the preparation for high office before computing the length of tenure of its holder. The result, as I recall, was purely arithmetic and simply shattering. Whilst the average American Cabinet Member had spent six years in "public life" (for obvious reasons that definition was widened to include, for example, being Director of the Ford Foundation or Head of CORE) before holding high office for an average of seven years, his British equivalent spent an average of sixteen years in Parliament before occupying an average of only twenty one months in a Whitehall Cabinet post. In other words, membership of the British Cabinet is in the main a long-service medal. The appointment is likely to come late in life and even more likely to be brief in occupation. There are, of course, a number of notable exceptions to this rule; some Ministers have not only occupied a wide range of Cabinet posts — they have survived for many years as holders of one or another high office. Wilson, Macmillan, Butler, Brown, Heath and Jenkins all spring to mind. The fact that they spring to mind, however, is a reminder of just how few Cabinet Ministers last long enough to carry through any substantial policy.

What this indicates is that Cabinet membership, as Tony Benn is presently showing with characteristic tenacity, should be a continuum. An effective Minister must be able to hold down a series of appointments, before he or she is regarded as a "solid" Cabinet member. My.

own belief is that this situation arises frail the formidable ability of the Civil Service to mould new Ministers in their own image. Only after considerable experience, preferably in several Departments, can a Minister feel able to control his officials. Up to that moment the officials will certainly hold sway. The few public extracts of Richard Crossman's diaries support this view.

Membership of the Cabinet, by itself, is unimportant. What matters is how a Minister behaves in relation to polie r;sues, his colleagues' idios'yncracies, ann feelings of

his Party at large — not to mention the -crucial matter of press relations.

This volume deals in depth with all of these aspects of Cabinet life, and benefits from the fact that it is written by a wide variety of authors. George Brown and Peter Thorneycroft set out once more their reasons for resignation. In each case it was both an issue of principle and yet in isolation a trivial matter. For a, Cabinet Minister, resignation comes with the final straw — the one that breaks the camel's back, not the one you clutch as you rise through the ranks of politics. Roy Jenkins and Lord Butler reflect in their usual manner on the nature of high office. There are some instructive chapters on how the 'media' can make or break a politician.

Yet there i§ something missing. How does a Prime Minister hold together a score or more people every Thursday morning? How is it that the Prime Minister — the only senior Minister without a Department to back him — can consistently carry the whole burden of responsibility for Government unity? In Washington, Gerald Ford has some two thousand personal White House staff; in Sweden a party official is appointed to each Ministry to keep an eye on developments and report back to the Chief. In Germany and France several hundred officials service the Chancellor and the President. It is ironical that British academia, with all of its grants and funds, has never clarified the personal power of a Prime Minister who has so few personal aides.

The essay on thi-s -subject, dealing with the Central Policy Review Staff, is reproduced from a Sunday supplement. Enough said. And, anyway, where are the Staff now? The truth is that, like most major reforms of a -previous administration, they are still there but are taken little notice of.

There is here both a question to be posed and an issue to be solved; in the end they may amount to the same point. If a Prime Minister can govern without a substantial personal staff how is he briefed? If the answer is that the Civil Service do the job, then read this book and realise that that can only happen if Party politics are excluded. In reality the Prime Minister chooses the Cabinet, gives half a dozen senior colleagues immensely powerful Departments, contents himself with a tiny personal staff, yet always emerges — give or take a General Election — as the master in his own house.

The real rub of the issue of Cabinet Government lies here. A successful Prime Minister can only emerge after many years of walking Party-political tightropes; and only with the massive support of his or her Party and Parliamentary colleagues. The power of the Prime Minister to appoint the Cabinet and by definition to sack any member, is enough in itself to give stability to our political system.

Yet I have a nagging doubt in my mind as to whether this is healthy. Should a Government not stick to its political programme? Should it not (pace Anthony Barber) carry through the policies which it put before the electorate? I fear that we, the voters are the losers, Cabinet Studies is a valuable reminder of how most of us fail to see the wood because of the fascinating trees. Cabinets can only govern if they are adequately advised and we as yet have no evidence that the British Cabinet is.

Terry Pitt was, until recently, a government adviser to the Cabinet Office.