Saturday 8 June 2019

Getting through the red boxes

Theresa May wanted to know the detail about all sorts of government policies, which at first made her cabinet happy, until they realised that issues went to her and stayed in her inbox. She prevaricated and postponed decisions. 

She found it very hard to get through her red boxes, unlike the Queen who always gets through hers speedily. I read that David Cameron always cleared the contents of his red box before his first meeting in the morning and that Foreign Office mandarins were surprised that Boris always mastered his brief. The Prime Minister who was best of all at this was the diligent John Major.

Theresa May was never up to a cabinet job - and it is partly a question of intellectual capacity, partly of character (lack of self-confidence and qualities of a leader). Why was she not pushed out of office by her party after the 2017 election?

Harold Macmillan found time to read Miss Austen and Trollope in the afternoons, or so he
said. He found being Prime Minister much less work than being Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer, because decisions are not for the Prime Minister but for the cabinet. Edward Heath went yachting at the weekend. But the state has grown much bigger since then, the world much more complex and British independence much more restricted.

Talking of red boxes, a lot of the things in red boxes nowadays are rubber stamping decisions already taken by the EU. I shall quote again this passage from 2014 from Dominic Cummings' blog.

One of the things that is most striking is how much of a Cabinet Minister’s box is filled with EU papers. In order to continue the pretence that Cabinet Government exists, all these EU papers are circulated in the red boxes. Nominally, these are ‘for approval’. They have a little form attached for the Secretary of State to tick. However, because they are EU papers, this ‘approval’ process is pure Potemkin village. If a Cabinet Minister replies saying — ‘I do not approve, this EU rule is stupid and will cost a fortune’ — then someone from the Cabinet Office calls their Private Office and says, ‘Did your Minister get pissed last night, he appears to have withheld approval on this EU regulation.’ If the Private Office replies saying ‘No, the minister actually thinks this is barmy and he is withholding consent’, then Llewellyn calls them to say ‘ahem, old boy, the PM would prefer it if you lie doggo on this one’. In the very rare cases where a Minister is so infuriated that he ignores Llewellyn, then Heywood calls to explain to them that they have no choice but to approve, so please tick your box and send in your form, pronto. Game over.
It’s the sort of thing you read in history books about how a capital city operated just before the regime collapsed.

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