Wanted: Two Ministers for the Union

March 26, 2021

Last week my review for the Prime Minister of UK Government Union Capability was finally published alongside an impressive package of still to be signed off reforms to the way relations with the devolved administrations are managed. 

Government action on my recommendations is more important than if or when the report was published.  And I welcome wholeheartedly the way the Government is already implementing new policies in line with those recommendations.

Jury’s Out

There are however two areas where for me the jury is still out on whether or not the Government fully accepts the scale of the change required to improve the way the UK is governed in a world where devolved institutions are an established and popular fact of life.

My report has two central themes.

The first is that the centre of UK government – Whitehall – needs to put the health of the Union at the heart of its thinking and action.  More sensitive to the distinct needs of different parts of the country and able to adapt policy to take account of that.

The second is about improving the way the UK and devolved administrations work together.  Creating a re-vamped UK devolution council for managing inter-governmental relations – a body that doesn’t just share information, but also facilitates joint decision-making where competencies intersect.

These aspects are central to building together a modern inclusive ‘Co-operative Union’ fully fit for the 21st Century and at ease with itself.

In a report of this kind the inclination is always to home in on proposals for structural change – after all they’re tangible – and miss the central message: a fundamental change in governing culture is required.

In any walk of life – business, sport, public bodies, third sector – you’ll always find in the highest performing organisations a strong and positive culture.  And changing an embedded culture or ingrained behaviours is one of the hardest things to pull off.  It requires a clear sense of direction and strong, consistent leadership to win through.

Which brings me back to my two reservations to an otherwise positive government response to my report.

New Union Cabinet Post 

Reservation one is an apparent reluctance to follow-through completely on one of it’s central recommendations  – to create a new senior Cabinet position within the Cabinet Office largely dedicated on a day-to-day basis to the Union brief. 

The line seems to be that Michael Gove makes such a post unnecessary.  If that is the answer then it rather makes my point.  I bow to no-one in my admiration for both his exceptional abilities as a minister and the limitless supplies of energy he applies to whatever task he is given.

He is a victim of his success.  In demand all over Whitehall as a radical reformer and fixer of problems – the go-to-guy for hot potatoes.  If anyone can multi-task then it’s surely him.  

And if one was to write an ideal person specification to fill the role of Cabinet Minister with day-to-day responsibility for the Union, and managing relations with the devolved administrations, there would be no better fit than him.  Alive to all the nuances and sensitivities involved and able instinctively to strike the right note.

Yet rumours abound that Mr Gove’s talents may soon be required in another great office of state.

If the health of the Union is the government priority it’s universally recognised to be, then surely the culture change required merits a 100% focus of – if not Mr Gove – then certainly a senior Cabinet Minister with the right instincts, who also has clout with the Prime Minister and across Whitehall.

That’s why my report recommends the importance of this job being more formally recognised, creating an expectation Prime Ministers will always appoint one of their best heavy hitters to fill it.  And that those appointed to fill the role will be glad to do so, recognising  the job as one of the most important in government. Relying on serendipity is not enough.

I see this as a key test of how well the Government understands the nature and scale of the task ahead and how ambitious it really is to settle the Union question once and for all.

Making Devolution Work – the PM’s role

Reservation two is about how the Prime Minister intends to exercise his own role as Minister for the Union.

There was a revealing exchange at the most recent House of Commons Liaison Committee when the former Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb questioned him on whether he saw it as part of his job as UK Prime Minister to try and build effective relationships with the leaders of the devolved administrations.  I may be doing the PM a disservice, but I did not detect from his response that this was high on his to do list!

There is however a serious point here.  It is blindingly obvious that the ministerial relationships between the UK Government and the devolved administrations can often be fractious and dysfunctional.  Tensions are inevitable when the political objectives of the parties involved are so different.  More robust intergovernmental machinery or more intense engagement at a political level will never eradicate them.  However, they should make for more reliable and effective working relationships, and be seen as integral to strengthening the UK’s governance.  

The Prime Minister was right to make clear at the Liaison Committee that he’s the Prime Minister for the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  He was also right to point out that any reformed UK devolution council should be very different in character from the European Council, which performs a different constitutional function, is governed by a different legal order and wrapped up in a more elaborate bureaucratic process. 

That said there needs to be a more productive and jointly owned forum where the UK Government and devolved administrations can have discussions – and reach agreements – in areas of common interest, where both reserved and devolved competences are engaged. 

The Prime Minister has a unique leadership role to make sure the relationships are working as well as they can – indeed it’s an important part of the Prime Ministerial job spec.  There may be four devolved leaders, but there is only one UK Prime Minister.   And with the power of the office comes responsibility.  In this matter Boris Johnson’s responsibility is clear.  

As currently drafted in the Government’s welcome package of reforms of the inter-governmental machinery, the role for the Prime Minister is extremely limited, if not potentially non-existent.  It amounts to hosting once a year a meeting of the Council at the apex of the inter-governmental architecture – a task that the document states can in any case be delegated to a deputy.  If the future of the Union is important to the PM, two meetings a year wouldn’t appear to place an intolerable strain on even a diary as busy as his. 

So as things stand the Prime Minister doesn’t yet appear committed to putting much of his own personal authority behind these reforms.  That would be a pity and a missed opportunity for him proactively to drive from the top joint UK-wide initiatives, which straddle the devolution boundaries.  More seriously, if an impression begins to emerge that improving the way the UK Government and devolved administrations work together isn’t a priority for the Prime Minister, how much of a priority, and for how long, will it be for the rest of Whitehall?

No bail out from SNP falling short in May

Much attention over the coming weeks will be focused on the Holyrood elections.  Will or won’t the SNP win an overall majority?  A majority and Whitehall’s political alert levels will move rapidly to Defcon 1.  No majority and a collective sigh of relief will be heard throughout SW1.  

And what about Wales if Labour loses ground in the Senedd elections and do deals with Plaid?  Or looking further ahead, the important elections next year in Northern Ireland, taking place just months after new border operations become operational?

There’s a real possibility that after May, three separatist parties may be in government across the UK. 

Whatever scenarios emerge, the UK is going to need two fully engaged ministers for the Union.  Either to respond to a renewed push for separation in Scotland, or to prevent another bout of Whitehall complacency and therefore missing the opportunity to settle the Union question once and for all.

Join our mailing list