Are we witnessing a sudden and astonishing outbreak of cabinet power? The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, prevails in his view that the EU constitution should be the subject of a referendum. The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, lets the media know he is livid about the rushed announcement. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, hints he is not thrilled with the handling of this momentous decision either. A rare outbreak of silence from the Leader of the House, Peter Hain, speaks volumes about his unease.
Meanwhile, newspapers report that Mr Blunkett is not pleased with those ministers who oppose him and Mr Blair in their desire to introduce compulsory identity cards. This has not stopped some, including Jack Straw again, from being associated with reports they have triumphed in neutering the proposal. Mr Blair's ministers are starting to make the unruly Labour cabinets of the 1970s seem docile.
Or do they? The stirring of ministerial voices is deceptive. The loud cacophony confirms the weakness of most cabinet ministers rather than their strength. Indeed some of the noises off are quite openly protesting about their puny influence. "Why weren't we consulted over the referendum decision?" some ministers ask with an impotent squeal.
In my view the most astonishing element of the decision to hold a referendum was the fact that the announcement preceded a full meeting of the Cabinet. When ministers complain subsequently it is hardly a sign of their new intimidating authority. The excuse for the rushed announcement, that we live with 24-hour media, highlights the prime ministerial disdain for cabinet government. The 24-hour media could have waited for a few more hours.
Not that discussion in Cabinet always makes a great deal of difference. Last year much was made of the extensive ministerial consultations over the introduction of compulsory ID cards. Several senior ministers expressed their concerns or outright opposition. The outbreak of ministerial assertiveness has delayed the cards' introduction, but no more than that. A stealthier implementation of the policy is the least that could have happened given that the dissenters included the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and the Trade and Industry Secretary.
As far as the substance of the issue is concerned, Mr Blunkett carried on regardless. As he made clear on the BBC yesterday, the long-term objective of his trial scheme is the introduction of compulsory ID cards, the possession of which will determine access to public services, including the NHS. As it happens I support ID cards, but no one can claim credibly that what has happened is a sign of a more assertive Cabinet. Mr Blair wants compulsory ID cards. Apart from the ever-obliging Mr Blunkett his most senior cabinet members do not. What has happened? Mr Blair has cleared the path for the cards.
Much has been made of the increasing influence of Jack Straw over prime ministerial thinking on a range of issues. Mr Straw is an independent-minded politician and until recently the most underestimated member of the Cabinet. I add the time qualification because in recent days Mr Straw has suddenly been credited with super-human ministerial powers, converting a reluctant Prime Minister to a referendum and knocking the stuffing out of ID cards. Before becoming Superman, Mr Straw was often portrayed as being rather weak and subservient when he has always been one of the more self-confident and free-thinking members of the government.
I was one of those sad individuals who watched Mr Straw as Home Secretary steer his controversial Freedom of Information bill through the House of Commons in the last parliament. I deserve your pity because these debates took place absurdly late at night, not because the exchanges were tedious. Mr Straw relished the fierce debate, almost conducting a seminar in the Commons, accepting boldly every intervention from MPs on both sides alarmed at the way he had turned the legislation into the Non Freedom of Information Bill. I disagreed with Mr Straw on the issue, but he conducted the debates with astute skill and genuine enthusiasm. He is one of those rare cabinet ministers confident enough to enjoy his job.
When Mr Straw urged Mr Blair to hold a referendum on the EU I have no doubt he was persuasive. Equally, I have no doubt that had Mr Blair insisted on pressing ahead without a plebiscite Mr Straw would have accepted the decision. What I do not believe is that Mr Blair felt so weak in relation to his Foreign Secretary and a couple of other ministers that he felt compelled to concede against his wishes.
The significance of the apparently blossoming relationship between Mr Straw and Gordon Brown has also been exaggerated. The two of them have always got on fairly well and in the case of the EU constitution and the euro they share the same wary instincts. Even so, close allies of both men tell me the two have never had a long conversation on their own about Europe. In the case of a referendum for the constitution, Mr Brown was less enthusiastic than Mr Straw.
Here is the reality. It was Mr Blair who decided to hold a referendum on the constitution. The reasons did not include overwhelming pressure from the Cabinet. Similarly on ID cards, it is Mr Blair who is keen and so the moves to their introduction continue in spite of significant cabinet opposition. He still rules over a largely timid cabinet and worries more about editorials in The Sun than the views of most ministers.
The key relationship in the government remains the one between Mr Blair and Mr Brown. Senior Downing Street insiders tell me that the business of government is relatively smooth when they are getting on and bumpy to the point of paralysis when they are not. The main responsibility of other ministers is to navigate between the two centres of power.
There has never been a golden age of cabinet government. It is true that Jim Callaghan used to hold two-day cabinet meetings on some occasions in the late 1970s, but he used to get his way at the end of them. What is significant is that all the ministerial combatants from those meetings acknowledge that they served a purpose and praise Mr Callaghan's chairmanship.
At the end of last year, one of them, David Owen, gave a perceptive lecture on the build-up to the war against Iraq. Dr Owen, who is a Blair admirer, expressed astonishment at the lack of ministerial consultation about the war either in cabinet committees or the full Cabinet. He pointed out that some of the disastrous diplomatic miscalculations and the violent aftermath might have been avoided if such meetings had taken place.
Following on from his thesis, if there had been a detailed and candid ministerial discussion on a referendum over the European constitution perhaps one of the ministers might have raised the implications of a 'No' vote, leaving Mr Blair and his senior colleagues better prepared last week in the answers they gave.
This is the unexpected twist: Mr Blair is the main victim of a docile cabinet.Reuse content