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What Rishi Sunak’s cabinet committees reveal about how he will govern 

Sunak’s cabinet committees reflect a preference for small strategy meetings and the power of Jeremy Hunt, but they also show a severe lack of women.

Rishi Sunak's cabinet
Rishi Sunak chairs his first cabinet.

A prime minister’s cabinet committees send signals about how they will govern. Rishi Sunak’s reflect a preference for small strategy meetings and the power of Jeremy Hunt, but they also show a severe lack of women, says Alex Thomas 

It is early days to reach conclusions about Rishi Sunak’s governing style. We know he wants to be seen as competent, even boring, after the trials of the Johnson and Truss administrations. His team are briefing that we will need to wait and see what his position is on any number of policy issues. But one signal about how he intends to govern is the list of cabinet committees announced last week. 

These committees can be an unreliable guide to the real priorities of a government. David Cameron and Nick Clegg had a coalition committee that barely met, with the real business being done in a much smaller and less formal ‘quad’. Cameron and Theresa May prioritised ‘taskforces’ on housing and immigration, with little noticeable benefit to those policy areas. And some prime ministers, including May and Johnson, have at times been reluctant to publish any information about their chosen committee structures at all. 

But committees do matter, as a forum for organising government and making decisions, and as a marker of who has power and influence in an administration. Sunak’s first organisational decisions suggest a prime minister who prefers small meetings but at risk of shutting out important voices. 

Boris Johnson’s strategy and implementation committees live on 

After trying various models, Johnson hit on a committee structure that seemed to work for him – personally chairing small strategy meetings, and delegating bigger operational discussions to deputies. Sunak has kept the model, notably with a very small Domestic and Economic Affairs Committee, that excludes even the home secretary. It has the un-illuminating terms of reference “to consider matters relating to the economy and to home affairs”, giving Sunak free rein to use this potentially powerful forum to set his government’s overall strategy. 

The much bigger Home Affairs Committee’s terms of reference cover “the implementation and delivery of domestic and economic policy” so this meeting will focus more on the operation and delivery of government. Although in practice we should expect this ‘HA’ committee, reconstituted from Cameron-Clegg coalition days, to do most of its business in writing, avoiding unwieldy 22-minister meetings. 

This strategy/operation distinction is to be welcomed if it means that the prime minister focuses on the biggest decisions and gives other ministers a clear framework in which to operate. No PM can or should be poring over all the detail of implementation. One risk of small strategy meetings that Sunak will need to address is that ministers end up being excluded from big decisions with direct relevance to their portfolio. Sunak and his advisers will need to be canny about who receives ad hoc invitations to discussions – nothing alienates ministers more quickly than being shut out from decisions which they then have to follow through. 

Sunak's cabinet committees hand influence to Jeremy Hunt and Oliver Dowden 

Another notable feature of the committee list is the prominence of two chancellors – of the exchequer and the Duchy of Lancaster – and the limited role of the deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. Chancellors Jeremy Hunt and Oliver Dowden are chairs and deputy chairs of multiple committees, and Hunt has control of the wide-ranging Home Affairs Committee. Chairing a committee matters beyond the status it conveys – both in the meeting when deciding how to manage the discussion and to sum up, and before and after in setting the agenda and prioritising follow up work. So chairing 'HA' gives Hunt the opportunity to range widely across the domestic policy agenda and, as importantly, strengthens the Treasury’s already powerful role in blocking initiatives of which Hunt does not approve. 

This reinforces the idea that Raab’s role as deputy is more about status and symbolism than as a genuine no.2 to Sunak. It also shows that the Treasury – orthodox or otherwise – will play a central role in policy-making in this government. And if the prime minister is serious about continuing Johnson’s plans to level up the UK he might come to regret the lack of a specific committee on a project which will only succeed with tight cross-government co-ordination. 

A lack of women – and less civil service participation – weakens Sunak’s committees 

There is, however, some cause from concern in the way Sunak has set up his committees. A positive innovation from the Johnson years seems to have disappeared: civil servants sitting at the table during cabinet committees and participating in discussions, rather than using ministers as departmental mouthpieces. During Covid and the Brexit transition both ministers and officials saw this as a way to have more informed, richer discussions which led to better decisions, especially when operational matters were being discussed. Rowing back on participation would be a backward step. 

There is also a glaring gender gap in some of the committees. Sunak’s overall cabinet is at the lower end in terms of recent historic gender representation; 23% of those attending are women. Their absence is even more stark in the cabinet committees. The most powerful grouping, the Sunak-chaired Domestic and Economic Affairs Committee, does not include a single woman. Nor does its sub-committee focusing on the future of the Union and devolution matters. Out of nine committees, two include no women, and another two have just one female member. There are 88 female Conservative MPs and 71 female Conservative peers: the prime minister should do better than this. 

There is always a danger of reading too much into committee Kremlinology, and the test of Sunak’s success will ultimately be in the decisions his government makes and its effectiveness in presenting and implementing them. But if he wants to show that his government is focused on competency then a streamlined cabinet committees might help him achieve his aims. However by excluding women from the heart of government Sunak is reducing the range of voices critical to good decision making.   

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