Revealed: `kitchen Cabinet' that tries to keep the heat off Major

Secret committee of 20 Tories and civil servants aims to steer the gove rnment away from `banana skins'. Donald Macintyre reports

An undisclosed 20-strong committee of Cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, Tory business managers and party officials is meeting daily in a concerted effort to avoid political "banana skins" and improve the presentation and co-ordination of g overnment policy.

The committee, chaired by Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, in his office at No 12 Downing Street, is an innovation of John Major's premiership and is attended by the Prime Minister's four closest advisers. It meets each morning from Mondays to Thursdays and is the only one handling government-wide business on a day-to-day basis. Norman Blackwell, the new head of the No 10 Policy Unit, is expected to be a key member after the committee resumes in the new year.

The No 12 committee, as it is known to Whitehall insiders, provides striking evidence of the acute importance Mr Major attaches to party management and presentation.

But its unprecedented scale and frequency has provoked private grumbles from some ministers who object to being summoned to appear before it. Doubts have also been expressed by some critics over how far the meetings helped to contain a long series of political and presentational pitfalls during 1994.

One senior Whitehall sceptic, acknowledging the high calibre of many of those present, said: "The input is very good but I'm not sure about the output."

The meeting, which takes place at 9am on Mondays and Wednesdays, and 8.20am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, is designed not only to co-ordinate media presentation of government announcements and policy, but also to keep backbench unrest to a minimum by anticipating the concern of individual MPs over specific proposals. Beside Mr Ryder, the meetings are regularly attended by Greg Knight, his deputy, and on occasions by another departmental whip.

The meeting is also unusual in the extent to which it mixes civil servants with party officials and advisers across Whitehall.

Minutes are normally circulated on a "need to know" basis with only the relevant sections being sent to each department.

Supporters of the system, which did not operate during Baroness Thatcher's administration, argue that it has played a key role in ensuring that departments and ministers adopt similar lines on policy issues. One successful example of the committee's workis said by regular participants to have been the handling of Front Line First, the announcement of defence cuts last year.

The committee was said to have been especially effective in co-ordinating the projection of the cuts to MPs and local press and television in constituencies where the impact on jobs was especially severe.

Other Whitehall sources say the meeting which took place several days before the Front Line First announcement on 14 July did little more than rubber stamp the admirably detailed plans for handling the announcement that had already been worked out in theMinistry of Defence.

In accordance with the committee's normal practice of inviting ministers with important announcements to be made on the day in question, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence and Jonathan Aitken, then the minister for defence procurement, both attended the meeting.

When departmental ministers attend, they are usually accompanied by their special advisers and directors of information.

Mr Aitken, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is also understood to have attended a recent meeting to discuss how to present government economic policy and capitalise on favourable indicators most effectively during the Christmas recess.

While Mr Major took the unprecedented step of publishing the membership of Cabinet committees, the existence, let alone the size and membership, of the No 12 group, has never been officially acknowledged.

beside the senior whips, those attending in 1994 normally included: tDavid Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; tTony Newton, Leader of the Commons; tLord Cranbourne, Leader of the Lords; tJeremy Hanley, Chairman of the Conservative Party; tSarah Hogg, outgoing head of the No10 Policy Unit; tAlex Allen, Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary; tJonathan Hill (now replaced by Howell James) the Prime Minister's Political Secretary; tTim Collins, Director of communications, Conservative CentralOffice; tAndrew Lansley, Head of the Conservative Research Department; tChristopher Meyer, Prime Minister's Press Secretary; tMary Francis, Prime Minister's economic private secretary; tJonathan Haslam, Mr Meyer's deputy; tPraveen Monan, Mr Newton's special adviser; tJohn ward, MP for Poole and the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary (PPS) in the House of Commons; tLord McColl of Dulwich, Mr Major's PPS in the Lords; tShana Hole, Mr Ryder's personal assistant and minute-taker of the committee.

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