By Sam Macrory - 25th February 2011
When GOD descends, it’s best to pay attention. The deep thinking which takes place inside the refined surroundings of the Institute for Government is worth following too.
Last night Sir Gus O’Donnell, the head of the UK civil service, took to the podium at the IoG. The subject matter was the draft Cabinet Manual, the document which Gordon Brown, as prime minister, asked Sir Gus to prepare in the run-up to the 2010 election with the aim of facilitating a smooth transition of government.
This sounds like one for the wonks – and it was standing room only as they flocked to hear Sir Gus’ update – but the serious questions they raised suggests that a wider audience should be paying attention. After all, this is a document described by Graham Allen MP, the chairman of the political and constitutional reform select committee, as a "blockbuster".
The consultation period on the draft document closes on March 8th, and there will be more plot twists before it reaches final publication. Three select committees have already held inquiries into the progress of the manual, described by Sir Gus as a "modest piece of guidance – a users’ guide for government and a useful reference for everyone else", but a set of serious questions remain.
Chatham House rules forbids me from naming the attendees who put the questions to Sir Gus, but for now, here’s a quintet of challenging problems which were raised.
Firstly, the very act of writing down a set of instruction for government rather raises the bar on Sir Gus’ “modest” assessment. Though not intended as a written constitution, once a distinction is made between those instructions which incoming governments can or cannot alter, then surely a step is being taken towards that monumental development?
Secondly, the question of ownership needs to be raised. Sir Gus sees the manual as a document for the executive by the executive. But how might the nation’s elected representatives feel about the exclusivity of such a high level document? Yes, they have the chance to submit their thoughts to a consultation, but should MPs be given the chance to vote on a potentially pivotal contribution to the process of governing Britain?
Thirdly, perhaps clarity is required on how and when a convention lapses. The draft manual still explains how the sovereign can dismiss the prime minister, should she or he wish. In practice this hasn’t happened since William IV dismissed Lord Melbourne in 1834, but as a convention it remains. Conventions, of course, can be discarded as and when the moment suits. In the case of potential prime ministerial sackings, should the opportunity be taken to explore this greyest of areas?
Fourthly, what happens to this manual in the future and how might the revision process be conducted? A series of radical constitutional changes are being pushed through Parliament, with electoral reform and a move towards five year fixed-term Parliaments to the fore.
Does the document risk ending up as a record of the state of affairs after the previous election, and therefore largely redundant by the next? If updates and edits can be made at a whim, to suit the times, then what is its relevance?
Finally, the Manual fails to answer what point the civil service should begin to enter talks with opposition parties in the run-up to an election.
Traditionally – or conventionally – once an election is called non-governing parties are free to seek advice from senior civil servants.
If, as expected, we know the date of the next general election long in advance, then at what point does the prime minister start the process of campaigning? In a five year Parliament, is the fifth year of a Parliament dedicated to electioneering? And if so, should the civil service be opening its doors to one or possibly two opposition parties?
The importance of these questions stretch beyond the confines of Westminster and Whitehall. From afar the drafting of the cabinet manual suggests, as Sir Gus says, the low key compilation of a user guide.
But the wonks and academics would tell you otherwise – and they’re usually right. This is a blockbuster which merits a bigger audience than is currently watching.