Sir Humphrey breaks up: change in Downing Street’s constitutional furniture

by Frederick Cowell

You may have missed it but God resigned last week. Don’t worry there won’t be four horsemen of the apocalypse thundering over the horizon – God in this case is the acronym of Sir Gus O’Donnell the Cabinet Secretary who after nearly six years at the head of the Civil Service is stepping down.  His resignation and replacement has marked the most significant constitutional reform the government has undertaken to date but it has fallen squarely into the category of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news story.

The traditional role of the Cabinet Secretary, since 1916, is three fold; firstly he (and it has always been a ‘he’)  sitting at the Prime Ministers right hand side runs the Cabinet, minuting the proceedings in long hand. Secondly he is head of the home civil service and finally, and perhaps most controversially,  he is the permanent advisor to the Office of the Prime Minister. They are not Alistair Campbell like figures they advise Prime Minsters of all stripes; Robin Butler served as Cabinet Secretary for Thatcher, Major and Blair.  The Cabinet Secretary exists to join government together and acts as a giant signal box for the Prime Minister  to convey  his instructions and orders to the Civil Service machine and is a living embodiment of the UK’s unwritten constitution.

Cameron’s new plan is to split the role up, the first, and most simple bit of the split being the  appointment of Jeremy Heywood as the new Cabinet Secretary – the traditional  Sir Humphrey Appleby role; running the cabinet itself and advising the PM. Peter Oborne, one of the few journalists to pick up on the story, has been heavily critical of Heywood due to his facilitation of Blair’s ‘sofa government’  and failures around the time of the Iraq war. Right wingers have long huffed and puffed about the existence of Tony Blair’s sofa (something Jonathan Powell Blair’s chief of staff has dismissed as ‘ridiculous’ ) but the Butler inquiry into ministerial failings in the build up the war revealed several failures on the part of Heywood.

But Heywood has been officially shorn of his role as head of the home Civil Service, decoupling  a position that has been in place since 1981, which according to former Cabinet Secretaries and the  head of the Public Administration Select Committee takes the civil service out of the top of government. Instead of being directly replaced the head of the civil service position is to be passed to another civil servant or possibly diluted among permanent secretaries. A new permanent secretary has however been added to the Cabinet Office, making an already fuzzy department  which in recent years has acted as a quasi policy shop for the prime minister, into its own powerful entity.

This may be technical trivia but it matters;  David Cameron has just made himself  much more powerful.   Ten Downing Street along with the Cabinet Office is morphing into something close to what Blair wanted: a Department of the Prime Minister.  This increase in power is being accompanied by a large increase in the number of political special advisers (SPADS) in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister – making the grand total of SPADS higher now than they ever were under Labour.  Bernard Jenkin MP, the Head of the Public Administration Committee has complained that this interferes with the ‘great bulwarks of our constitution’ and a key role of the cabinet secretary was to provide constitutional security at the top of government and deal with issues, such as the investigation into Liam Fox, where political concerns need to be divorced from administrative proceedings.  The dilution of the role potentially compromises this and the other constitutional checks the Cabinet secretary was responsible for providing

Nick Clegg said in June 2010 that this government would be the most radical ever when it came to constitutional reform and Cameron promised to limit the number SPADS and restore cabinet government. Eighteen months later a new ‘Department of Downing Street’ is emerging – a development that not only breaks all of these promises but makes the Tory opposition-era snipping about sofa style presidential government all seem rather quaint.

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