Rishi Sunak’s decision to bring David Cameron back into government was a surprise for a number of reasons. But one which has sparked a lot of debate is that the former prime minister will serve from the House of Lords.
This has provoked an hysterical reaction in some quarters. But one doesn’t need to sign up to Chris Bryant’s burbling about an “elective dictatorship” to see that the arrangement might pose practical questions.
As it happens, Parliament does have procedures for ensuring that Secretaries of State who sit in the upper house face proper questioning: as the Institute for Government notes, these were introduced when Peter Mandelson was returned to Cabinet by Gordon Brown in 2009.
If scrutiny is the concern, then we should also acknowledge that the calibre of debate in the Lords is often higher than in the Commons. Per the IfG:
“Baroness Stowell found as a junior Lords minister that “quite often you’d be facing people that are the world’s leading authority on the topic.” For example, as a foreign secretary in the Lords, Cameron will be facing four of his predecessors (David Owen, Douglas Hurd, William Hague and Philip Hammond).”
Of course, critics of the decision are usually focused on the question of accountability to MPs; Sir Lindsay Hoyle is reportedly, and understandably, exercised about this.
There do already exist mechanisms for MPs to scrutinise Lords minister: whilst a Commons select committee can’t compel a minister to appear before it, it’s very difficult to imagine Cameron refusing to do so. If MPs wanted a stronger guarantee of scrutiny, Parliament could reform its procedures to allow this; there were similar debates after Mandelson’s appointment. One of the benefits of an uncodified constitution is, after all, that such incremental adjustments can be made.
In the meantime, there will be Foreign Office ministers in the Commons who can field questions. It isn’t obvious why this should be inadequate – they are being quizzed on the Government’s policy, after all, rather than their personal views – especially if the Secretary of State is subject to expert grilling in the other place.
Should it be important that the person leading in the Commons has Cabinet rank, there is precedent for that too: Lord Carrington’s deputy, Humphrey Atkins, sat in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal. Happily Andrew Mitchell, the Development Minister, already attends Cabinet.
Another difficulty is more practical. The House of Lords does a lot of legislative heavy-lifting these days, and the difficult work of steering legislation through the Upper House tends to fall quite heavily on Lords ministers because there are usually fewer of them. Cameron has never served as a Secretary of State, even in the Commons, and with his international responsibilities will probably be ill-placed to do that work in any event.
But what of the broader, philosophical question: is it acceptable, or advantageous, to have a Secretary of State in the Lords?
To some, it must look like a throwback. But just as the changing nature of the Commons has increased the legislative role of the Lords, so too does it make at least a case for recruiting for the Cabinet from the red benches.
Back in the 1970s – the last time a former prime minister served in a successor’s government – being an MP was much more a vocation, with many serving (often literally, in the gruelling twilight of the Callaghan Government) for life. This meant there was a much deeper reservoir of experience available on the green benches.
Today, things are very different. Turnover is much higher, with many senior figures choosing to step down from Parliament after having served in, or missed out on, government. The role of MP is also much less attractive than it was a generation ago, and many able people are reluctant to subject themselves to a life spent canvassing in exchange for unremitting and sometimes abusive public attention.
As such, there is arguably a stronger argument for recruiting from the Lords, and using it as a means to bring individuals into government, than say 20 years ago.
Nor does it seem particularly important that Cameron is serving in one of the so-called Great Offices of State. Given the actual structure of modern government, the grouping is rather arcane: how many people would seriously suggest it were more important that the Foreign Office be subject to direct Commons scrutiny than, say, the Department of Health?
There are obviously limits to how far you could take this; the balance of power now rests decisively with the Commons, both when it comes to choosing the government and determining the fate of legislation. A Cabinet drawn entirely from the peerage is, for practical as much as philosophical reasons, an impossibility.
But that doesn’t mean that having some ministers, even senior ministers, appointed from it is some sort of democratic outrage. Having every Secretary of State drawn from the Commons is a relatively recent innovation, in terms of our constitution, and it has scarcely coincided with a golden era of Cabinet government.