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Matrix Thursday, 15 October, 1998, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
The Cabinet
Cabinet
The post-reshuffle cabinet - the PM's sanction
Donald Macintyre examines the power of the cabinet in an age when the office of prime minister appears all powerful.

Imagine Britain under nuclear attack.

Only one person can authorise the chief of defence staff to give the order for the retaliatory launch of Trident cruise missiles: the prime minister.

Nothing surprising about this, except that, apart from hiring and firing his ministers, it is more or less the only executive action which a prime minister is entrusted by the British constitution to carry out on his own.

This graphic point is made by Professor Peter Hennessy to illustrate the formal limits of the prime minister's executive authority in the British system. Unlike the secretaries of state, who have a host of statutory powers, duties and discretions, he has none.

As Jack Straw, the home secretary points out in this week's programme in the BBC Radio 4 series "The Matrix of Power", an individual secretary of state's authority rests partly on the fact that it is his or her name, and not the prime minister's, on the big bills going through parliament.

A tight grip?

On the face of it, of course, this seems a merely technical point. If ever there was a time when a prime minister could order his ministers to do more or less what he wants them to, it is now.

His popularity, his authority in his party, his media image of sheer indispensability, all make him a frighteningly formidable adversary for a cabinet dissident. His power may be informal; but that doesn't make it any less real.

At present, the idea of loose, collegiate, cabinet government like that espoused by John Major or Jim Callaghan, could not seem more remote. Ministers across the political spectrum frequently attest to the degree of ideological unity in government.

Further, the recent reforms to the cabinet office by Sir Richard Wilson, the cabinet secretary, were widely seen as strengthening the grip of the centre on the departmental baronies - to the extent that some officials have even suggested that they will help to usher in a more "Napoleonic" system of government.

If anything, the kitchen-cabinet of the unelected advisers to both the prime minister and to some extent the chancellor seem more powerful than most junior or middle-ranking cabinet ministers.

Policy, personality and power

A strong prime minister can indeed wield huge authority over his cabinet colleagues, even on a policy issue on which he or she is facing strong opposition.

Heseltine walks out
Walking out in 1986
The immediate trigger for Michael Heseltine's resignation from the cabinet over Westland in 1986 was Margaret Thatcher's refusal to risk a debate on the issue in the full cabinet after losing the argument in a cabinet committee.

But Mr. Heseltine tells us in the programme that he thinks she would probably have won if it had been debated by the full cabinet.

The subsequent experience of the poll tax suggests that he is right. Privately almost all the cabinet had severe doubts about the wisdom of the tax. Yet no minister was prepared to support Nigel Lawson in his opposition to Margaret Thatcher over it.

Professor Hennessy's point nevertheless goes to the heart of a major peculiarity in the British system.

The organic chemistry of a British cabinet, even one as visibly dominated by its prime minister as this one, is more subtly balanced than it looks.

All prime ministers are circumscribed by the independent power of the chancellor, at least on matters which directly affect the economy. Strong chancellors tend to win their arguments over curbs on public spending as John Major discovered in at least one cabinet defeat over education spending at the hands of Kenneth Clarke.

The ultimate power?

Finally, while the right to sack and force resignations enjoyed by the prime minister is a hugely potent source of authority, there are limits to the extent that it can be wielded without collateral damage to his own office - as Margaret Thatcher discovered.

For supine as they may have looked at times, it was the cabinet who brought her down in the end.

All of which means that no prime minister, however powerful, can afford to ignore his cabinet permanently. He may not need them now; but sooner or later he will. In the British system, cabinet ministers remain, as Douglas Hurd calls them, the "big beasts of the jungle".

Cabinet government may be in its dormant phase, as it seemed to be when it was written off before at times under Lloyd George or Margaret Thatcher. But it will come back.

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