To the Institute for Government last night to hear Sir Gus O’Donnell talk about the draft cabinet manual. Not, on the face of it, the most exciting way to spend an evening. There were compensations – excellent nibbles, for instance, and a chance to gawp at some of the UK’s most prominent constitutional experts. If you like that kind of thing.
Flippancy aside though, this was a far more important event than its relatively low profile would suggest. Collecting this kind of information in a single document hints rather closely at the beginnings of a single written constitution for the UK – something the assembled experts were anxious to point out. But, according to Sir Gus’s repeated assertion, the cabinet manual is not intended as such, and is rather a document “by the executive, for the executive” containing a snapshot of “laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government”.
Lord Adonis, director of the Institute for Government, couldn't resist a little dig on this topic at the cabinet secretary's expense however. In his introduction, the former cabinet minister said:
Listening to him, you’d think he was producing a written constitution single-handed
According to Sir Gus, the manual attempts to provide guidance for ministers and parties at all points of potential conflict or confusion – most recently and notably, of course, in May 2010, when the draft version helped facilitate the coalition negotiations. As such, it is a document that has the potential to wield a significant influence as similar situations arise in the future.
Given this, and the enormous amount of work that Sir Gus and the cabinet secretariat will have put into it, the cabinet secretary was surprisingly light-hearted, almost flippant, in his address to what he termed “an audience so distinguished I’m quite scared of it”.
Although lucid and articulate in his presentation of the manual, he seemed clearer on what it is not than what it is. It isn’t a constitution, will have no legal authority in court, and “is not as important as the magna carta”, apparently. As one audience member pointed out, this stream of “elegant negatives” isn’t enormously helpful when trying to understand just what this document will be able to do and how it will be of use.
Sir Gus was extremely clear in his denial that the draft version of the manual had any real influence on the coalition negotiations last May. He was more evasive when asked how often the document will be updated to reflect changes in practice, whether there will be a further consultation process when this happens, and how binding, if at all, its account of executive conventions will be.
He was also clear on his own role in these negotiations. Apparently, the “best decision” he feels he has made as cabinet secretary was “to sanction the repainting of the office door – something that I think, given the media scrum outside for those five days in May, all would agree was money well spent”.
Other aspects of his address might have been disputed, but there were certainly no arguments there.