Should HM Cabinet comply with Wates-type governance Principles?

The Cabinet Manual, published by the The Cabinet Office is “a guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government. Chapter 4 puts us in no doubt that the PM can run Cabinet as he or she sees fit:

4.6 Cabinet is established by convention and
does not have specific terms of reference or
powers laid down in legislation.
4.7 The Prime Minister determines and
regulates the procedures of Cabinet,
including when and where meetings take

Even following public rebukes, as Mr Blair received in The Chilcot Report for “sofa style” government during the Iraq War, nothing has changed in the governance of the Cabinet as result of these rebukes.

Some may reasonably argue that it would impossible for Prime Ministers to “get things done” if their hands were tied by complex governance rules or that good decision-making processes necessarily lead to good decisions.

However the purpose of good governance is not to tie hands but create an environment of disciplined decision-making some of which decisions may be wrong but not wrong because of the process.

So, what if the current Cabinet under the the Chairmanship of Prime Minister Jonson were to undertake an immediate “snap” board evaluation and remedial action of matters arising at this time of national crisis using the six Wates Principles as a guide?

I choose The Wates Principles because they are the closest and most appropriate of the three codes currently available to the Cabinet’s analogous corporate modus operandi: a large private company.

Here’s a back-of-an-envelope evaluation of the current Cabinet using the main requirements of The Wates Principles as a guide:

Principle 1 Purpose, Culture & Values, Strategy

While I may disagree with the current purpose of Mr Johnson’s cabinet I can’t accused him or it of lack of clarity on this especially in relation to Brexit and COVID-19. And to be fair, most Cabinets are clear on these, like them or not.

But might we all not be safer and better off if there were rules of governance around Cabinet development and execution of strategy in the achievement of its purpose as set out in its manifestos?

Such rules might have avoided oven unready Brexit deals and COVID-19 strategies that fail.

Principle 2 Board Composition

The Wates Principles states that “effective board composition requires an effective chair  and a balance of skills, backgrounds, experience and  knowledge, with individual directors having sufficient  capacity to make a valuable contribution. The size of a  board should be guided by the scale and complexity of  the company”.

Few would argue that some of the best talent on the Tory benches were sacked and that the current Cabinet was chosen for its hard Brexit stance rather than ability. I don’t deny it would be tricky to draft a piece of Cabinet Governance that addressed this issue but a rule requiring some form of “hearing” system on Cabinet appointments would go some way to forcing a Prime Minister to assemble a Cabinet of the best available talent.

Principle 3 Directors Responsibilities

One aspect covered in this Principle that relates to Cabinet is “effective decison-making and independent challenge”. The Chilcot Report highlighted the fact that some Cabinet members were afraid to challenge Mr Blair on the basis that he had won them three elections and must be right. Mr Johnson appears to have chosen Cabinet members likely not to challenge him and his alleged enforcer Mr Cummings. Surely some form of Cabinet Governance could at least reduce the likelihood of this happening?

David Owen in his book Cabinet’s Finest Hour writes “It is the strength of Churchill’s period as wartime Prime Minister that he did not try to bypass either Cabinet or Parliament”. Would we not feel safer if there were rules in place to prevent a Prime Minister even trying?

Principle 4 Opportunity & Risk

There appears to be no rules around risk management in Cabinet. Is there even a risk register? At any stage was the risk of a no deal Brexit RAG-ed RED? Are the risk pros and cons of each key decision discussed and minuted? I suspect not and the “Red Risks” mount.

Principle 5 Remuneration

I hold the unpopular view that cabinet ministers should be paid at least as well as highest paid civil servant.

Principle 6 Stakeholder Relationships and Engagement

Perhaps this is the area that deserves most attention in any cabinet governance review. There appears to be no scrutiny of cabinet governance, little or no reporting from it or on it and no attempt to connect the purpose of cabinet with the purpose of parliament in meaningful relationship management and engagement.

That’s a quick canter through the six headings as they might relate to Cabine Governance. It may be naive to expect any Prime Minister to agree to a new Cabinet Governance Code which might tie their hands but surely The Cabinet Manual could be at least updated with stronger guidance that would protect us all from poor governance in government?

It’s odd, is it not, that successive governments have pushed for improved corporate governance codes leading to the well received updated FRC Code 2018, the current QCA Code and The Wates Principles but has not got its own house in order?

Ciarán Fenton

After many years practising as a generalist leadership consultant working with leaders, boards and teams I’m now focused on facilitating board evaluations using FRC, QCA and Wates codes and principles as well as ESG awareness. Endorsements for my work can be seen here:

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