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The use of the proposed Star Chamber to resolve spending disputes is a mistake

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-09-18 at 06.41.04 It's beginning to emerge that there's been no Cabinet debate about where the spending axe should fall.  Several senior sources have confirmed this to ConservativeHome, and some would like a collegiate discussion.  Two main views can be taken of this prospect.  The first is that the Prime Minister should essentially be a first among equals, and that Cabinet meetings should be a collective means of resolving difficult issues (such as this one).  The second is that a modern Prime Minister can't, as John Major did, attempt to lead a "government of chums". He or she must lead from the front - like Thatcher and even (very arguably) like Blair, in some respects at least.  It follows that some major matters at least must be resolved outside Cabinet.

The former view's been supported by such constitutional enthusiasts as Peter Hennessy.  I think that such ideals don't always work in practice, and that for better or worse government's moved on since the mid-1970s - perhaps the last time there were lengthy Cabinet debates about spending scalebacks or reductions.  Under Labour, such agonising was a sign of poor leadership and weak government.  By contrast, Margaret Thatcher minimised long Cabinet consideration of economic policy as soon as she was in a position to do so.  It's understandable that David Cameron, supported by George Osborne, should seek to do the same: a big Cabinet set-to about spending would most likely see an epic display of Ministerial special pleading.

So Ministers shouldn't complain about a lack of Cabinet airtime.  They've got a reasonable grievance, however, about the proposed means of resolving spending disputes - the new Star Chamber, on which William Hague, Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin will sit alongside Treasury Ministers.  As I've written before, Thatcher had a body with the same title, but it worked in an essentially different way.  This Government's model involves a select group of Cabinet Ministers sitting in judgment on their colleagues.  Furthermore, it's been reported that others will be invited to join them if they reach early accommodation with the Treasury.  Thatcher's method was essentially to use Willie Whitelaw as a kind of umpire.  This avoided the outcome of one group of Cabinet Ministers being seen by others as favoured proteges.

David Cameron has a grousy Cabinet to manage.  The planned spending scaleback is the biggest in post-war history.  There's ceaseless rumour about the prospective resignation of Vince Cable, Iain Duncan-Smith, Liam can almost take one's pick.  However, it's most unlikely that anyone will quit before the conference season ends (and unlikely afterwards too, though one never knows).  But whatever happens, the wheels of government will run more smoothly if spending Ministers don't feel they're being second-guessed by privileged colleagues in other spending Departments.  The minimum course of action would be to drop the floated idea of enlarging the Star Chamber further.  The maximum would be to scrap it altogether, and let the Prime Minister arbitrate - which, in some cases, he may have to do anyway.


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