The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at the Institute for Government – 11 March 2024

The speech made by Sir John Major at an event to launch the final report written by the Institute for Government’s Commission on the Centre of Government on 11 March 2024.

Thank you and good morning everyone.

I am in no doubt at all that the Commission is right to address the serious problems at the centre of Government. It’s very evident once you’ve read the report that a very great deal of care has gone into the consideration of their reforms. Let me say at the outset that I think we owe the Commission a very great debt for their work.

I am told, but I haven’t myself seen, that some media outlets have attributed views to me this morning which are, how best to put this, are misleading. So my own remarks will clarify that view and put it in context. But two other contextual points first. It is now over a quarter of a century since I left Government, so I may be out of date. I belong to that strand of Conservatism that prefers evolutionary change rather than radical disruption, so I may be out of fashion as well. But yet, I believe that there is more than one way to reach a common objective and I suspect that as this debate begins there will be more agreement on the objectives of the reforms than there will be about some of the details of the reforms. It is of course the objectives that will matter in the end.

As Kipling put it succinctly, ‘there are 9 and 60 ways of constructing tribal lays and every single one of them is right’. I will illustrate the ‘9 and 60 ways’ to an extent shortly. Immediately, let me say this, I strongly agree with the Commission’s first principle of maximum delegation from the centre. From departments to public bodies, to local governments, in a democracy power is safest when it is spread around. If we fail to delegate, we waste rich resources of manpower and experience in every part of our political and administrative system. With delegation, one side effect people may not think about, senior Ministers will have more time to think and to plan, which many of you may think is a good idea. As the Commission states, where responsibilities are delegated, the money must be provided to deliver them – which hasn’t always been the case.

Some departments of state are clearly under-resourced to meet their statutory obligations. As for local government, in my view, it now needs a comprehensive reform of its financing. The report proposes that at the beginning of every Parliament, the Prime Minister should set out the priorities and guiding principles of his or her Government. Undoubtedly, the public has a right to know this. I would simply observe that in an ideal world, the party leaders should set out those principles before the nation votes rather than after the nation votes. Manifestos these days are rightly treated with a certain degree of scepticism, stated principles should fare a great deal better.

The report proposes also an inner Cabinet of senior Ministers and I see why they do that. I agree that the Cabinet at present is too large and cumbersome, especially when attendance is swollen by a significant number of non-Cabinet members as well. That should stop, unless the attendees are crucial to a particular discussion. Ideally, the full Cabinet should be better focused and I think significantly trimmed in size itself. It should not, as described to me by one Cabinet Minister, become merely an extended briefing session for those attending. But, there are practical drawbacks to a formal inner Cabinet. It would alienate those who were excluded, it would change the collegiate of the wider Cabinet and diminish the perception for it and it would make reshuffles an absolute nightmare for Prime Ministers and I promise you that they are difficult enough without that added problem.

That said, the Commission’s objective, and here’s where I come to the objective point again, the Commission’s objective of a smaller decision making body to advise Cabinet could be achieved by appointing an informal Cabinet sub-committee of appropriate Ministers or ad hoc meetings chaired by the Prime Minister. Both of those strategies have been used in the past and both of them I would commend for the future.

I agree very strongly with the proposal to appoint a First Secretary of State. A First Secretary, who might have operational ownership of policy delivery, could be a much needed progress chaser on policy and a conciliator on departmental disputes, not least over public spending where they will arise inevitably year upon year. But, again, this would be a difficult post to fill as any First Secretary would need real authority and would need to be a senior and experienced politician, a Willie Whitelaw or a Michael Heseltine let us say. Such individuals are not always easy to find.

The report recommends a new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a separate civil service department. There’s bound to be more than one view upon this, it’s a subject that will arouse a certain degree of controversy. The intention again is similar, the intention is greater efficiency at the centre and that is an intention that must be taken seriously. But I am intensely wary of how the implications might work out. New departments with large bureaucracies allied to the reality of human ambition, even in the administrative side of it, suggests an aggregation and a growth of power at the centre rather than a delegation of power from the centre, which is the first principle that the Commission set out.

We are not a Presidency. Personally, I do not wish to see an increase in the power of Number 10. Constitutionally, the Prime Minister has few powers, but in practice he or she has many, simply because of the position that they hold. With a large majority, a Prime Minister can be almost unconstrained in his or her actions and we see that in many pseudo democracies. My preference is quite clear, I prefer effective Cabinet Government to Prime Ministerial diktat. I may be wrong, it may be that I’m out of date and those particular changes are desirable, but I admit frankly that I am uneasy about them.

Number 10 is a very different place than once it was. I go back into the dark ages perhaps. In the 1980s and 1990s, Number 10 had about 100 staff and it now has around three and a half times that number at no doubt three and a half times the cost. But I have seen no evidence yet, not shown to me certainly, that it is three and a half times more efficient. Indeed, hearsay suggests simply the opposite.

Similarly in the 2000s, the Cabinet Office had around 1,600 staff and I am told that it now has over 10,000. This is of course partly because of Europe, because the preparation done for the European referendum was inadequate and after the referendum had voted the way it did, many new decisions had to be taken that had not been considered and they were all just loaded onto the Cabinet Office which accounts for that huge swelling in numbers. Even so, I’m still unconvinced that it’s more efficient. I’m equally dubious about splitting the roles of Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service, again a controversial point and one that has arisen before. I will explain why.

The Civil Service is the delivery arm of Government, the engine of the whole machine and its work is absolutely crucial. If the Civil Service fails, then Government fails. For those reasons, and others that I have no time to include, I believe its head should be the most senior Civil Servant, the only one with daily and direct access to the Prime Minister and that is the Cabinet Secretary.

We can be proud of the UK’s reputation as one of, some would say the, most stable democracies in the world and we should cherish this. But, if the Government or Parliament fails to meet the standards expected by the public then trust in our political system will fail. I regard it as essential for our future to attract more of our most able people to Parliament and to the Civil Service. I remember speaking to schools and universities many years ago and asking how many wanted to go into elected or unelected public service and practically 40% to 50% said yes. Today, it is very nearly a nil return and that is not healthy for the administration or the politics of Government.

Let me add a brief personal note and let me be clear about this. Three Prime Ministers in one Parliament, with a few malcontents seeking a fourth, does not help the perception of the centre of Government.  Nor does the Supreme Court ruling that the Government has broken the law. Nor is it a good optic when Ministers indulge in public arguments, openly blame or in one or two occasions insult their civil servants, or when they favour the advice of often inexperienced political advisors over that of senior Civil Servants with years of specialist experience and knowledge. Or when they sack senior Civil Servants who offered candid advice which simply did not suit the Government’s thinking. I know of one who told me he was removed because, and I quote, “not one of us”, nor should he have been. The role of the Civil Servant is not to be “one of us”, not to be partisan, but to benefit policy by possessing an institutional memory and offering impartial advice without fear or favour. If he is going to be moved because the advice is unwelcome, then he will not offer advice to the Ministers that perhaps they should have and that will not help the administration of Government or the policy of the elected administration.

None of that conduct is conducive to high moral or good Government. Our politics needs changes to create and project a far more effective and trusted system. Let me just summarise, and I apologise that there are many aspects of the report that I simply haven’t been able to cover because it’s very extensive. Let me summarise, our democracy cannot be static, it needs refreshing and it needs updating to protect it from harm and to restore its reputation. I would like to thank the Commission for their timely, their powerful and their valuable contribution to this debate.