The Guardian view on the cabinet: a paucity of talent | Editorial

Government in Britain relies on a critical mass of serious secretaries of state. The current crop is worryingly lightweight

The supreme executive body in British politics is the cabinet, chaired by the prime minister. That is the constitutional theory, but in the public imagination the system is seen as rather more presidential.

Over time, prime ministers have become increasingly dominant. Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher had their “kitchen cabinets.” Tony Blair was criticised for operating an informal “sofa government”. In the period of coalition government after 2010, David Cameron stitched up deals in a four-man “quad”. But under Boris Johnson, the aggregation of power in Downing Street is unprecedented. It resembles a campaign more than an administration.

That is not surprising given the prominence inside No 10 of figures from the Vote Leave referendum team, headed by Dominic Cummings. That faction is obsessed with information warfare and is disrespectful of Whitehall, seeing departmental structures as relics of a dysfunctional system. Cabinet ministers appear often to be mere spokespeople, subservient to Downing Street advisers who write their scripts.

It takes a certain calibre of politician to resist that process. When Rishi Sunak was appointed chancellor, few expected him to stand out from Mr Johnson’s shadow. He is young, relatively inexperienced and the job came with the condition that Treasury advisers answer to No 10. But Mr Sunak has been a steady and articulate manager of the economic response to the pandemic. The hardest part – navigating a recession – is yet to come, but he invites more confidence than most of his colleagues.

Another relatively independent figure is Matt Hancock, who has demonstrated some organisational grip on his department. There is plenty to criticise about the health secretary’s handling of the pandemic – equipment shortages, misused statistics, neglect of care homes – but it is hard to imagine anyone else in the cabinet doing a better job. Dominic Raab is a weak foreign secretary whose unfitness for a top job was widely displayed as he garbled inanely through a stint as stand-in, when the prime minister was ill with Covid-19. Priti Patel has brought authoritarian paranoia and bullying incompetence to a Home Office that was over-endowed with those traits already.

Other departments are no more blessed. Gavin Williamson has been uninspiring in a crucial role. The education secretary has had months to devise a strategy for reopening schools but has not progressed beyond picking needless fights with unions. Even those who resent Michael Gove for the work he did as education secretary in the coalition years recognise an effective operator who directed his department towards policy implementation. Now Mr Gove brings a veteran’s heft to the cabinet office, averting an even worse shambles at the heart of government.

The daily coronavirus briefing press conferences have been a showcase of absent talent. The public cannot have been impressed with the performances of Robert Jenrick, Alok Sharma and Grant Shapps. These figures have been shrunk by the size of the crisis.

It is easy to be beguiled by nostalgia. There was no golden age of all-heavyweight cabinets. Some roles are by their nature reserved for less showy politicians, just as some jobs have been doled out as bribes to troublemaking rivals with no talent except for making mischief. But the chaff used to be leavened with intelligence and capability. The balance has shifted under Mr Johnson. Advancement under his reign has been dependent on a stupefying degree of loyalty to the personality cult of “Boris” and the doctrine of an ultra-hard Brexit. Independent thought and moderating pragmatism are mostly banished to the back benches.

That dynamic leaves no mystery as to why the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is marked by indecision, inconsistency and lethal incompetence. An administration that values propaganda over governance and ideological purity over honesty is uniquely ill-suited to a public health emergency. The prime minister is the most prominent face of that failure, but his weakness is further exposed by the flimsy cabinet. Behind the coronavirus crisis is a crisis of government, made all the more serious by a conspicuous shortage of ministers who have shown that they deserve to be taken seriously.



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