Why is the Cabinet still so united?
There is a crisis in the country, but not in Whitehall – why?
For ten months without a break the British government has been handling a crisis without itself being in crisis. It is, of course, being severely and trenchantly criticised. But that is not to be confused with an administration that is wilting under the pressure and tearing itself apart. There is a crisis in the country, but seemingly not in Whitehall.
It is a relative imperturbability that has received little acknowledgement. After all, news is about events, not their absence. But, given the circumstances, the outward display of Cabinet unity is one of the most intriguing features of how the Johnson government has responded to the Covid challenge.
Given what is at stake, Cabinet ministers might easily by now be fighting like ferrets in a sack. The sheer unremittingness of the struggle ought to be fraying tempers. It places great demands on those charged with making ministerial decisions and the weighty consequences of getting those judgements wrong. Then there is the intense media scrutiny and the urgency of public expectation. Add to this the potential for lack of sleep and impossibility of taking a break – and government ministers could be forgiven for getting edgy and ill-tempered, not least with one another.
What should be noteworthy is the infrequency – not the regularity – of Cabinet ministers going public with their divisions over policy (even if just “allowing it to be known” via a sympathetic journalist). Resignations there are yet to be. Whatever their differences, none of the Conservative MPs sitting in the Cabinet went into public life minded to massively expand the supremacy of the state over civil liberties and the economy. But they have done so, repeatedly, and with a level of acquiescence and groupthink that is so remarkable as to bordering on the bewildering.
Certainly, some have made the transition away from personal freedom and a light touch state with seemingly greater ease than others. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, and the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, are the government’s activists for faster, higher, longer intervention and restriction. Their colleagues have not always submitted with the same zeal, but they have acquiesced all the same. Where has been the concerted endeavour to outflank Hancock and Gove?
there is nobody in the Cabinet outflanking the prime minister on the lockdown-sceptic wing of the debate
Scepticism is certainly articulated from the Tory backbenches, particularly amongst MPs associated with the Covid Recovery Group. But Cabinet sceptics have kept their internal divisions remarkably private to a degree that the demands of collective responsibility have not always kept under wraps. Where are the anonymous briefings, the leaking by ministers or their Spads within twenty minutes of a Cabinet meeting ending? Such behaviour was the norm during previous challenges to collective resolve, for instance throughout Theresa May’s grappling with how to handle Brexit. Communicating by Zoom has perhaps reduced the scope for gossiping in corridors and wine bars. More significant has been the relegation of Cabinet to a body that is essentially reactive rather than proactive, endorsing strategic decisions taken by sub-committees. But even that development does not fully explain the go-with-the-flow.
The most serious Cabinet spat to have become public knowledge concerns the home secretary, Priti Patel’s thwarted efforts to close the country’s borders earlier and more comprehensively. In March 2020, she tried to form a Cabinet coalition to stop travellers continuing to come into the country. It was a fundamental issue which might have split the Cabinet between its more liberal-internationalist ‘Global Britain’ members and those eager to batten down the hatches. Whilst Patel clearly resented not getting her way, it has taken ten months for her to be caught publicly admitting as much – via a Zoom call with Conservative Friends of India. As political division goes, Priti Patel versus Grant Shapps is not exactly Sir Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws.
In this crisis, the two Cabinet ministers that Boris Johnson could least afford to slam ministerial car doors are Hancock and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Losing a health secretary in a health crisis does not look good, whatever the public’s estimation of Hancock (although his departure would be easier to endure than the resignation of the chief medical and scientific officers, Chris Whitty or Sir Patrick Vallance). But Hancock has more often dragged Johnson to his position, than the other way around.
Patel versus Shapps is not exactly Sir Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws
The relationship between 10 and 11 Downing Street also remains relatively harmonious. In the weeks leading-up to the second lockdown, Sunak was said to be predisposed against tighter and longer measures. If so, he did not take his convictions to the wire. He has had a quiet January.
Whether cabinet ministers should resign over their performance is not the same question as why they have not resigned over policy or principle. Indeed, the most significant departures from government have not been ministers but rather the Downing Street director of communications, Lee Cain, and the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Neither left primarily because of differences over Covid policy.
And what of the prime minister? The popular view that Boris Johnson has been consistently late in introducing necessary restrictions is the main indictment of his role in leading a country whose 100,000 Covid-related deaths is the highest in Europe. He has given the impression – usually intentionally – that curbing civil liberties and closing schools and business are alien to his instincts and that he has only done so after concerted pressure by those who represent “the science,” rather than a Cabinet ambush.
However badly it plays to the public or perhaps a future inquiry, the perception that Johnson is always the last to agree to tighter restrictions represents astute positioning within a parliamentary Conservative party that is more lockdown-sceptic than the wider public appear to be. Indeed, there is nobody in the Cabinet outflanking the prime minister on the lockdown-sceptic wing of the debate. Even rebel backbench MPs who despair of Johnson’s eventual capitulations recognise that they would probably happen sooner and last longer if any other Cabinet colleague was prime minister. They are despondent about him, but realise he is still their best hope.
Margaret Thatcher enjoyed being perceived as the rebel within her own government. Boris Johnson is developing a similar persona during the Covid emergency. Whatever else he achieves by his approach, he is presiding over a Cabinet that remains, given the circumstances, remarkably compliant.
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