In Depth

Should Boris Johnson ‘cull the cabinet’ to end Westminster rivalries? 

Outgoing top civil servant backs Dominic Cummings’ calls for smaller government

Boris Johnson should urgently reform his government and cull half his cabinet, the departing head of the civil service has said.

In a valedictory speech on Monday, outgoing cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill said the current government is “too rivalrous” and is focused on the “preoccupations of Westminster” rather than the “issues which matter to our citizens”, reports The Times.

What else did Sedwill say?

In his last public address as cabinet secretary, Sedwill criticised a number of government departments being led by cabinet ministers with competing political priorities.

And the UK government as a whole is unwieldly compared with those of Donald Trump in the US and Xi Jinping in China, argued the top civil servant, who is stepping down amid reports of tensions with  “senior members” of the prime minister’s team.

“The British cabinet is twice the size of President Trump’s and four times the size of President Xi’s,” he told an audience at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. “Boundaries within Whitehall are largely happenstance but skew ministerial unofficial behaviour.”

Sedwill added that Britain’s central government is “too metropolitan, too short term, too siloed, too rivalrous and too focused on the preoccupations of Westminster and Whitehall rather on the issues on the front line, which matter to our citizens”.

What difference could a cull make?

Sedwill claims that cutting the number of ministerial departments from 24 to around a dozen would help foster genuine debate in cabinet. 

“I personally think cabinet is too large and quite a cumbersome forum for genuine debate of the issues,” he said. “You can have 25 or 30 people around the table. At best only a few of them can have a significant intervention.”

Some proponents of a cull by Johnson point to the small cabinet of German leader Angela Merkel, who has a team of just 15 around her. “In general the system works well, and there have been few calls for a larger cabinet or more government departments,” says The Telegraph.

However, “key differences in the German political system also help keep the cabinet small”, the newspaper adds. “In federal Germany, the 16 states each have their own fully empowered regional government, so there is no need for cabinet representation.” 

 And some commentators argue that the current UK cabinet is not as big and cumbersome as suggested.

Indeed, thanks to a reduced number of junior ministers, “the cabinet is currently the smallest it has been for a number of years”, says the Institute for Government. The think tank concedes, however, that “the size of the cabinet can also make in-depth discussion and considered decision-making difficult”.

Is a smaller cabinet part of Dominic Cummings’ plans?

Sedwill’s call for Whitehall reform chimes with those made previously by Johnson’s right-hand man. Dominic Cummings and Sedwill have clashed in recent months over the top civil servant’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, but both men had always agreed on the need to streamline government.

All the same, Sedwill made a thinly veiled jibe yesterday at the senior advisor’s plans to bring in “weirdos and misfits” to improve policy-making, saying that “much of the public debate about civil service reform falls into the trap of arguing that success is guaranteed by the injection of different kinds of clever people”.

Sedwill also shrugged off the hostile briefings about him made to the media by anonymous government sources - reported to be linked to Cummings - joking that his former roles in national security had been far worse.

“I’ve had a gun in my face from Saddam Hussein’s bodyguards [and] a bomb under my seat at a polo match in the foothills of the Himalayas,” he said.

“I’ve been shot at, mortared and had someone come after me with a suicide vest. When people ask me how I handle the political sniping which is a regrettable feature of modern governance, I simply remind myself that it really isn’t as bad as the real thing.”


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