Last week the four central permanent secretaries – Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, head of the Home Civil Service Bob Kerslake, Treasury Permanent Secretary Nick Macpherson and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton were all before the PAC answering questions about the role of the centre. Sir Jeremy’s testimony was particularly enlightening. He said that he agreed with the PAC: “We want to see a strong centre too.” The role of the Cabinet Office was, he said, to enforce Cabinet decisions: “We have a set of tools at our disposal but sometimes they do not work as fast as we would want.” Even though the two parties in coalition “were interested in moving to more reliance on Cabinet Committees and more collective consideration of some issues... [that hadn’t] made much difference to the question of how cross-departmental issues themselves are taken forward”. He noted that cross-departmental working still “depends a lot on ministers working cooperatively together ... and on permanent secretaries coming together in groups...that is more of a culture problem because people are still more inclined to defend a departmental line”. One of the most important roles of the centre is to counter exactly those gravitational pulls that get in the way of effective government.
Despite this picture of a slightly ad hoc, hand-to-mouth and underpowered centre Sir Jeremy asserted that it was not weak – it was better co-ordinated and more capable than it had been for long time and that now was not the time to be “messing around with the structure of the Cabinet Office and creating a Prime Minister’s Department”. In fact both pictures are right. The Cabinet Office does have more capacity than it had in the past. The secretariats are more active and engaged. There is more capacity in the Efficiency and Reform Group to oversee both major projects, to drive digital transformation and implement the efficiency programme. And compared to the early Cameron administration, some progress chasing capacity has been restored in the form of the Implementation Unit (though it is markedly smaller than its Blair/Brown predecessor) and Sir Jeremy himself has built a small horizon scanning capacity which is substituting in part for the decision to abolish the Strategy Unit. But compared to other similar systems the support the Cabinet Office offers the prime minister is much feebler than in systems which are less squeamish about admitting that the prime minister should be able to call on a department for support.
The official history of the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet describes its transition from “postbox to powerhouse” – too often our Cabinet Office has been stuck at the postbox end – seeing its role as weak (or what the academics call “negative”) co-ordination. Now it has moved along the spectrum – not least because of Sir Jeremy’s own authority – but it still falls short of offering the sort of systematic and more expert capacity that David Cameron’s Australian counterparts would expect. Is it time to ‘mess around’ and create a prime minister’s department? At one level there is no need, because the Cabinet Office can, and on some issues already does, play that role.
On Europe for instance, the Cabinet Office is absolutely clear that its role, above all else is to support the prime minister who is often the sole UK negotiator in the room. A renaming might be more honest – but would also provoke the unnecessary ire of those who fear presidential prime ministers. What is more important is that, whatever the name of the department, the prime minister can, from the moment he or she enters Downing Street, call on the core capacity they need to do their job well. They can supplement, shape, and reprioritise but they should never flounder for lack of support. There have been further changes announced to the way the centre is organised since our recent report on the subject was published. But that does not change our key recommendation that the Cabinet Office needs to offer this core capacity to an incoming prime minister – and that the person who needs to make sure it happens is none other than Sir Jeremy himself.