How to run the government when 'things get sticky'

Edward Heath

Under lock and key inside the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall lies the only paper copy of the the secret playbook of cabinet government in Britain: the precedent book. This is the guide to the inner workings of government.

Related: Revealed: Prince Charles has received confidential cabinet papers for decades

Buried among the reams of protocol is the injunction to send all cabinet papers to Prince Charles, which the Guardian revealed on Tuesday. It showed that for at least 20 years the prince has been privately receiving all cabinet papers – summaries of discussions at the highest level of government – and that the government has spent three years trying to prevent publication of the document.

But the 200 pages of the precedent book offer a glimpse into the inner workings of government. They include the Dos and Don’ts of Chairmanship, a brisk guide to running cabinet committee meetings. It dates from 1977 and is sage advice to prime ministers for “if things get sticky” drafted by the late Lord Hunt of Tanworth, cabinet secretary to Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson. Here are his top tips:

On preparation

“Homework is essential ... sort your papers out carefully in front of you before you start the meeting ... keep your eyes on the speaker and the meeting virtually the whole time. A chairman hunting among his papers or whispering to the secretary is very off-putting.”

On chairing etiquette

When opening the cabinet, “it is usually a bad idea to say ‘Who wants to go first’. Be clear about who you think should lead off. Don’t make a practice of trying to ‘square’ a lot of people before the committee meets. The news will soon get around and your impartiality as a chairman compromised.

“Keep your eye on the ‘professional’ committee member who argues over every comma and wastes time. Always remain in control of the meeting. This does not mean hogging the discussion yourself or being dictatorial. A joke is often effective; a cutting remark almost never ... deal briskly and firmly with red herrings and trivia.

“If you have a compromise up your sleeve it is often best not to produce it too early. You want to spot the psychological moment when everyone will grab it eagerly.”

On managing ‘sticky situations’

“If things get sticky remember there are different ways to take the heat out of an argument: a) introducing a new factor into the discussion, b) asking for the views of someone not already involved in the argument, c) a light-hearted remark. Any of these is better than appealing for moderation.”

On the seating plan

Elsewhere in the precedent book, which dates from 1992, the authors tell the PM how to arrange the seating around the cabinet table, which could help when working out the pecking order in those new cabinet photos. A senior minister should be on your left and the other senior ministers opposite with the rest of the ministers downtable. But, “personal preferences and political considerations play a part as well as strict seniority”.

On sticking together

The principle of collective responsibility means “ministers will often be responsible for decisions they took no part in making”. This means they “must vote with the government, speak in defence of it if the prime minister insists, and cannot afterwards reject criticism either in parliament or outside on the grounds they didn’t agree”. A minister who cannot accept this must resign although in Whitehall few things are quite that straightforward. The guide continues that this is in fact “a matter of political judgement for the prime minister of the extent to which the credibility of the government has been impaired and the relative advantages of having the individual within the government or on the back benches”.

On leaks

Maybe you should believe what you read in the papers. The 1992 precedent book admits that “although press reports purporting to give accounts of cabinet proceedings are necessarily treated officially as speculation, many such reports are clearly well (if partially) informed”. It explains that “the principle of the confidentiality of cabinet applies most strictly to current proceedings and with less strictness as the year passes”. However, “the need to secure the confidentiality of cabinet proceedings is an important reason for severely restricting the attendance of non-members”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Robert Booth, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th December 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010