Learn to let go, Tony, and use the Cabinet

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A FUNNY thing happened at Cabinet just before Christmas: a 45- minute discussion on a controversial item of government policy, in this case social security reform. To discuss an issue in the Cabinet was in complete contravention of all recent protocol. In seven months of cabinet meetings, this was only the second open discussion, and it naturally caused a stir among the 22 most senior politicians in the land. One of them has already made a joke of it: Why do only half of Tony Blair's Cabinet get a cup of coffee when they meet each Thursday? Answer: By the time the trolley has gone down one side of the table, the meeting's over.

The new rule of cabinet government is that it is a sickly institution which revives nowadays only when the Prime Minister is in trouble. Even in the supposed golden age of the cabinet - BMT, Before Margaret Thatcher - the body had off-days when key decisions were hijacked by smaller groups of ministers. There was a Lazarus-like recovery in the early days of John Major's "Cabinet of Chums"; one minister returned from Mr Major's first cabinet meeting confessing to an embarrassing lull in the conversation when the prime minister asked for comments. "We're all rather out of the habit," he explained. But this resurrection did not last, and Mrs Thatcher's innovation, of taking decisions in cabinet committee before presenting full Cabinet with a fait accompli, endured.

Mr Blair has gone one better. Under New Labour, cabinet committees are waning as centres of power, or even as bodies that decide detailed policy issues. Agreements are usually made after direct negotiations between departments and Number 10. In the many cases involving public spending, the Treasury gets a word in, but the Blairite triumvirate of Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, and Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is all-powerful.

It is not that ministers are necessarily kept in the dark. Cabinet committees and their satellite sub-committees exist on paper, in both senses. Whitehall copies relevant documents to each minister, a custom which led directly to David Blunkett's outburst about threats to disability benefit.

Most committees rarely meet. The sub-committee on women's issues, for example, is moribund. The defence and overseas policy committee has not met for two months. During that time important decisions have been taken on Montserrat. The relevant documents were circulated, but there was no formal discussion.

Does this matter to Mr Blair? Whether he is or is not a control-freak, the Prime Minister has come through a testing pre-Christmas period with his government's poll rating still exceeding 50 per cent. The Opposition has been brilliantly wrong-footed and the Conservatives are as divided as ever. Chris Patten, the former Tory Party chairman and Hong Kong governor, chose last week to rediscover his liberal, pro-European roots, attacking William Hague's two-term, or 10-year, opposition to monetary union expounded during his election. Michael Portillo intends to deliver a talk on the single currency this week which will go further than William Hague's policy of opposition during this parliament and the next. The title of the talk, "Democratic Values and the Currency", suggests that, by spelling some of this out, he will apply pressure on Mr Hague from the right. Despite good Commons performances by the party leader, the Tories have yet to decide whether to take a decisive turn to the right, or to concentrate on tactical opposition.

The Liberal Democrats are also divided over whether to oppose Labour from the left, on issues such as education and health spending, or to get into bed with Mr Blair. Suggestions that Paddy Ashdown might well end up in a Blair cabinet could split the party, which, a cynic would conclude, is why they are being floated in the first place. Meanwhile, two left-wing Labour MEPs have allowed themselves to be expelled from the Labour Party and disowned by most of the left.

What is happening only emphasises the fact that Mr Blair's Achilles' heel is internal, not external, and that he needs to create new structures to consult, and to keep his ministers on side. The rebellion over lone- parents' benefits was a double warning: while backbenchers were openly defiant, many frontbenchers were decidedly reluctant to defend the line in public. Ministers are obliged to observe collective cabinet responsibility, but the quid pro quo is that they expect their views to be heard before they defend the end product.

Tensions within the Cabinet are well documented, and they have plenty of potential for destabilisation. But what is more important is that Mr Blair is moving into a new phase of government in which consultation will be essential if he is to side-step banana skins. The first few months of the administration produced a honeymoon unprecedented in recent political history. As the press lapped up the dynamic first 100 days of Blair government, ministers basked in the reflected glory. Those halcyon days now seem far off, and Mr Blair must expect more of his initiatives to provoke less enthusiasm.

During the early days there was widespread agreement over policy because most of it had been agreed in opposition, consequently few bombshells exploded in Downing Street. Since May, Mr Blair has set some 50 reviews and 20 task forces to work. Some of their findings are certain to upset several of the men and women who sit around the cabinet table. And the existence of so many overlapping committees breeds the danger of a welter of contradictory initiatives. It is crucial to Mr Blair that the review of the tax and benefit system, for example, does not make recommendations that contradict Frank Field's green paper on social security. Stir in the Treasury's fundamental review of expenditure, and the welfare-to- work committee, and Peter Mandelson's social exclusion unit, and the potential for slip-ups is huge.

The volume of paper from all these activities will obliterate the notion that "the centre" - as Downing Street is known in moderniser parlance - can watch everything. It was probably impossible when Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher tried it. Since then the paper flow has increased considerably. During the next six months, Mr Blair and his colleagues will be more pressed than ever because of Britain's presidency of the European Union.

Consider the workload of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Not only does he run a juggernaut of a department with responsibility for the environment, transport, the regions and local government, he will now be chairing European councils on transport and the environment. That involves days of preparation and Euro-deal-making. The Prime Minister himself will probably devote at least two days a week to the European presidency. He will not have time to read everything emerging from the Whitehall policy monster.

Mr Blair may be getting the message. He followed up his display of glasnost in the Cabinet on social security by announcing the establishment of yet another committee on welfare reform. This one is supposed to have all the big players on board, and to bring together all the various strands of tax and social security reform. Let's hope their meetings are frequent, and last long enough for all concerned to get a cup of coffee.