Cabinet Committees, sub-Committees and taskforces
The change from coalition to majority government has shifted the priorities of the governments and those who chair the Cabinet Committees.
Cabinet itself – now with 30 attendees – long ago ceased to be the place where the real business of government is done. Much of that migrated to Cabinet Committees, but as our report Centre Forward has made clear, they can be efficient or dignified parts of the British constitution depending on prime ministerial taste. Tony Blair created large numbers of them, but routinely by-passed them by preferring more informal ad hoc meetings in Number 10. Gordon Brown reinvented the Cabinet Committee with his National Economic Council, which was used to steer the response to the economic crisis. David Cameron signalled his intent on national security by setting up a National Security Council which he chaired, with his most senior ministers represented and which he planned would meet weekly.
So the new set of Cabinet Committees, just announced, offers potential clues to changing priorities, to where power lies and how the Prime Minister plans to go about governing, with lessons learned from his first term and freed from the constraints of coalition.
In line with changing government priorities – and the change from coalition to majority government – David Cameron has chosen to reconfigure his Cabinet Committees. The Coalition committee is no longer necessary – but the Prime Minister has also removed the committees for Banking Reform and Public Health. He has created a new, small and highly political Europe committee chaired by the Prime Minister, to manage the business of the upcoming referendum, while a much bigger European Affairs committee is chaired by the Foreign Secretary to oversee routine European business. There is also a new sub-Committee, chaired by David Cameron and charged with supporting the Armed Forces and their families. The final new committee is Constitutional Reform, chaired by Oliver Letwin to deal with the future constitutional arrangement of the UK. The National Security Council remains, with amended membership to reflect the end of the Coalition.
But another innovation is the creation of 10 new “Implementation Taskforces” to focus on government priorities. In the coalition, the Prime Minister chaired a Growth and Enterprise committee which took reports from the Implementation Unit on progress (or lack of it) on prime ministerial priorities. Now these priorities have been signalled in advance ranging from Childcare to Syrian Returnees.
[Update 24 June: PM announced an additional child protection taskforce, bringing the total number of Implementation Taskforces to eleven.]
There is now one less main Cabinet Committee than in 2010 but the creation of the new taskforces means there are now 24 committees compared to 15 at the start of the Coalition in 2010.
After deciding what committees to create, the Prime Minister has to decide who chairs and who is on the committee. That gives us some insight into who are the big players in the new government and what issues are considered most important.
The Prime Minister himself is chairing seven committees, signalling his priorities. These include chair as the European referendum, the National Security Council and the taskforces on immigration and extremism which the Home Secretary might otherwise have been expected to chair.
But after the prime minister, it is Oliver Letwin, newly elevated to the full Cabinet but still in his policy co-ordinator role, who is now chairing the most committees apart from the Prime Minister himself. They are big ones too: Home Affairs, Constitutional Reform, and a sub-Committee for Economic Affairs. George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, takes control of the committees on Economic Affairs and Public Expenditure.
Even more striking are the figures for membership of committees. Letwin sits on 22 of 24 committees. The others who will be spending much of their time dashing in and out of 70 Whitehall are Greg Clark, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and Greg Hands, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who both sit on 14; Business Secretary Sajid Javid, Cabinet office Minister Matt Hancock and Theresa May are on 13 each. Hancock and Javid all only entered Parliament in 2010 – so this signals a rapid rise for them to the centre of power. They are of course all graduates of the Osborne finishing school at the Treasury.
With a small majority the so-called business managers become important players – Mark Harper, the Chief Whip, sits on five full Committees: Economic Affairs, Home Affairs, Europe (Referendum), Constitutional Reform and Parliamentary Business and Legislation. Chris Grayling, Leader of the Commons, is on four Committees and a sub-Committee, on Economic Affairs. The Leader of the Lords, Baroness Stowell, sits on the Committee for Constitutional Reform and one for Parliamentary Business.
Some departmental business is pretty self-contained – others need to join up across government to achieve results. The ubiquity of Letwin and Hancock mean the Cabinet Office is unsurprisingly the most represented department, with the Treasury coming next. But following them is the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, and the Department of Communities and Local Government, reflecting the importance of decentralisation, local growth and housing. Departments such as Defra, DECC, DCMS and DfID are on fewer than 20 committees between them.
Indeed, Justine Greening is only on three. That in turn means that Cabinet Committees are more male than the Cabinet as a whole – four of the six women secretaries of state, Liz Truss, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers are on only 21 committees between them, fewer than Letwin on his own.