The dynamics of collective decision-making
In examining the respective roles of the Prime Minister, departmental ministers, the Cabinet and its committees in making policy, it is important to re-emphasise the great flexibility within the system. A single pattern of relations will not suit all circumstances or all personalities: there are too many variables, human and political, to permit that. Consequently it is possible only to describe the bounds within which the various actors usually operate and identify working rules which hold true in most cases. Given these limitations, six principles seem generally to hold true:
|1 The decision-making process is segmented: that is, different patterns of policy-making operate in different policy areas. The Prime Minister is deeply and continuously involved in foreign and economic policy, less deeply and more sporadically in other areas.
|2 The Prime Minister’s relationship with the lead minister in each sphere varies accordingly: he must work particularly closely with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary, while in other fields he deals with ministers on a less regular basis. |
|3 Given a capable departmental minister, the depth of collective ministerial involvement tends to be the inverse of the Prime Minister’s involvement: shallow in foreign and economic policy, deeper in other domestic areas. This has held true both before 1979 and under the rather different system that has since evolved. |
|4 The Prime Minister needs strong ministers. A weak minister is a drain on the energies of his colleagues and the Prime Minister. |
|5 In public expenditure a completely different set of dynamics applies, with each minister fighting his corner and an arbitration role played by a committee of senior ministers, with an occasional appeal to the Prime Minister or Cabinet. |