“In 2002, Tony Blair promised George Bush that ‘I will be with you, whatever’, committing the UK to war in Iraq without consulting the foreign and defence secretaries, let alone the rest of the cabinet. Fifteen years later, there are still no safeguards in place within the government to prevent a prime minister acting so recklessly again,” said the committee’s chairman, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin.
The report says that, although the cabinet secretary is personally responsible for making sure scrutiny of important decisions happens in line with the rules in the cabinet manual, their only resort is to resign if a prime minister decides to ignore their advice.
The MPs recommended that this situation should be changed so the cabinet secretary could ask the prime minister for a written ministerial direction to ignore the normal decision-making process and then be able to decide whether to make the situation known to parliament.
“If the cabinet secretary asks for such a direction, it should be at his or her discretion whether this direction should be made immediately known to parliament, or, in matters relating to national security, notified to nominated independent privy counsellors and released to parliament later. Such a mechanism would dispel any doubt about the cabinet secretary’s duty to ensure proper decision-making,” the committee’s report said.
While Jenkin said Theresa May had “assiduously used cabinet and its committees” and that the committee had confidence in the cabinet secretary, “this is no guarantee for the future”. He said: “It’s therefore a perfect time to introduce such a safeguard, when the system is working well, not to wait for another catastrophic failure.