The Prime Minister has angered peers by appointing Baroness Stowell as Leader of the House of Lords without appointing her to the Cabinet. In a scathing debate last Monday David Cameron was criticised for diminishing the status of the Lords Leader, and thus the chamber itself. Meg Russell and Robert Hazell highlight that the row, and the proposed solutions, point to wider uncertainties about the size of Cabinet and status of Cabinet ministers.
The current controversy began on 15 July with the Cabinet reshuffle, when the previous Lords Leader (Lord Hill of Oareford) was nominated as Britain’s next EU Commissioner. This vacancy was to be taken by Baroness Stowell. But while Lord Hill had been a Cabinet member, it soon emerged that Baroness Stowell would not be; instead she would join the ranks of ministers merely ‘attending’ Cabinet. Following criticism that a male Lords Leader was being replaced by a female one at a reduced level of pay, the Prime Minister offered to top up her salary to the level of a Cabinet minister from Conservative Party funds. Baroness Stowell showed her mettle by publicly rejecting this offer. On the day after the reshuffle peers had made it clear (from col. 594) that they considered it inappropriate for a minister formally representing the whole House of Lords to be part-paid by one political party.
The most fundamental principle at stake concerns the representation of the House of Lords at Cabinet level. This is the first time the chamber has had no representation among full members of Cabinet. In a quick report issued on 25 July, the Lords Constitution Committee commented that all previous Leaders of the House of Lords have had Cabinet rank. But the nature of the change goes far further. The position of Lords Leader dates only to 1846, when Lord John Russell became Prime Minister in the Commons. Before this Prime Ministers had more commonly been drawn from the Lords. It was also common until the 19th century for a majority of Cabinet members to be peers. This subsequently declined, but Lords representation had always been guaranteed by presence of the Lord Chancellor: a centuries-old post held consistently by a peer until reform in 2005. Hence until nine years ago the Lords effectively had two guaranteed seats in Cabinet. Suddenly it has none.
Last week’s debate on this controversy, sponsored by former Commons Speaker Baroness Boothroyd, noted a letter from David Cameron to the Chair of the Association of Conservative Peers Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market (also quoted on page 5 of the Constitution Committee report). In the letter, Cameron suggested that it was ‘not possible’ to make Baroness Stowell a full member of the Cabinet ‘owing to the provisions of the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975’. Several peers clearly viewed this as disingenuous, since the Act merely limits the number of Cabinet members who can be paid a salary – to 21 plus the Lord Chancellor. The Prime Minister could have included the Lords Leader within that total. But he wanted a Cabinet position for the new Leader of the Commons, William Hague, whose most recent predecessors (Andrew Lansley and Sir George Young) had had the status of ‘attending’ Cabinet, rather than full membership. This too is surprising, since the Leader of the Commons has normally been a member of Cabinet – although that chamber is otherwise well represented. Whether the Lords actually needs a formal voice around the table is of course a valid question – but (setting aside issues of the chamber’s status) denying this could prove problematic for government, given the challenges posed to its legislation by what has become an increasingly assertive Lords.
At the end of the Lords debate peers overwhelmingly supported Baroness Boothroyd’s motion (by 177 votes to 29), asking the Prime Minister to ‘reconsider his decision’. Various short- and longer-term solutions were proposed: former Cabinet Secretaries Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler proposed, respectively, that another member of Cabinet should be asked to step aside, or to forego their salary. Lord MacGregor suggested that the 1975 Act be amended to expand the number of salaries available. In a subsequent blogpost, former Constitution Committee chair Lord Norton suggested that Baroness Stowell should simply be appointed a full member of Cabinet forthwith, since there ‘is a statutory limit on the number of ministerial salaries … [but] no limit on the number who may be appointed as Cabinet ministers’. The Constitution Committee report likewise noted that ‘The membership of the Cabinet is not set out in law, but the salaries payable to ministers are’.
This episode shows up not only weaknesses in Number 10 decision-making (could nobody have foreseen these problems?), but also weaknesses in current statutory provisions. The 1975 Act is hard to understand, even for people inside government. It protects the status of the Lord Chancellor in Cabinet, but this no longer guarantees a position for the Lords. And it fails to guard against inflation in the size of the Cabinet, and those attending Cabinet, which have got badly out of control. The 1975 Act expanded the number of salaries from 19 to 21, and before 1972 it was only nine. As the Constitution Committee pointed out, after the 2001 and 2005 elections just one additional minister was designated as ‘attending Cabinet’. In 2007 Gordon Brown listed six such ministers; following this reshuffle there are eleven. Linked to this is thw inflation in the number of special advisers, with the Ministerial Code providing that Cabinet Ministers are each entitled to two, while ‘Ministers who regularly attend Cabinet’ may have one. A question from former Lords Leader Baroness Royall in debate about whether such ministers have access to all Cabinet correspondence went unanswered.
In the short term the Prime Minister must decide how to respond to the House of Lords’ complaints, and several options are available. But in the longer term, a wider-ranging inquiry by the Constitution Committee into the arrangements for Cabinet membership seems called for.
Meg Russell is Reader in British and Comparative Politics, and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL.
Robert Hazell is Professor of British Politics and Government & Director of the Constitution Unit.