Series by Michael Cockerell starts with the role played over the years by the most powerful unelected member of the government, the Cabinet Secretary.
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This is the secret world of Whitehall.
Decisions taken here behind closed doors affect all our daily lives.
In this three-part series, I'm telling the inside story
of what's gone on over the years in the great institutions
at the very heart of government.
Tonight, the Cabinet Office.
It's the secret power house of British politics,
with the key task of keeping the government show on the road.
It was here that the Cameron / Clegg coalition deal was hammered out.
And the Cabinet Office houses the sinister-sounding COBRA,
the government's anti-terrorist intelligence and emergency centre.
It's where the most powerful unelected member of the government has his grand office.
From here, the Cabinet Secretary, the real-life Sir Humphrey
from Yes, Prime Minister, pulls the invisible strings across Whitehall.
# Midnight One more night without sleeping... #
A year ago, and the Cabinet Office in Whitehall
became the centre of the political and media world.
The Tories and the Lib Dems met to negotiate the coalition deal
at a series of meetings behind the green doors
of the normally camera-shy Cabinet Office.
# Green door
# What's that secret you're keeping? #
What was it like for the Cabinet Office itself, which
traditionally is rather anonymous as far as the public is concerned?
Suddenly the Cabinet Office
was at the centre of political and media attention.
It was definitely very exciting for the Cabinet Office, because normally
all the attention is on 10 Downing Street, that famous street outside.
Suddenly, I was very pleased that we'd repainted the door
because it was on all of those camera shots.
And it was the centre of attention for a few days.
I'm glad it was only a few days.
The Cabinet Office, like many classic institutions in this country
with considerable power, is hardly known about outside.
It's only the initiates who appreciate all the time
just how important and significant it is.
The Cabinet Office prefers to do its work out of the limelight.
Its key task is to try and make government work properly.
Its high-flying civil servants form a mini Whitehall,
who aim to co-ordinate policies and replace the traditional dogfights
between ministries with what they call joined-up government.
My first ministerial posting was in the Cabinet Office,
a wonderful piece of luck that I was able to see
the centre of government operating.
The Cabinet Office make sure that every part of government is speaking to the other.
It's like a sort of vast and rather intricate,
finely tuned telephone exchange.
You can feel all the plugs been put in across that board.
The really important aspect of the Cabinet Office
is to make government business happen.
They're there to fix the meetings, they're there to take the minutes.
They're there to find the compromises.
The central part of the Cabinet Office's work is to ensure that
the Cabinet and its powerful subcommittees work effectively.
The Cabinet secretary, or his self-effacing senior officials, attend all ministerial meetings
to record the discussion and the decisions for action across Whitehall.
These were backroom people who relished being out of the limelight.
There was a deal down that for concealed influence,
and some would say power, there was anonymity while
they were doing it, apart from the appearance in the odd honours list,
when they would shimmer discreetly to the palace for a gong
or an upgrade gong, and back again.
But as a friend of mine used to say, rather unkindly of some individuals,
they were scarcely household names in their own household.
There have only been ten Cabinet Secretaries in the past century,
since the Cabinet Office started,
while there have been more than three times that many different governments.
Until recently, they remained figures unknown to the public.
For the Cabinet Secretary was the keeper of the government secrets,
for whom discretion was like the calcium in their bones.
As the most powerful permanent unelected member of the Government,
he was the chief policy adviser
and father confessor to the Prime Minister.
In Whitehall, where knowledge is power, the Cabinet Secretary is the person who knows most of all.
For unlike the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Secretary is allowed
to see all the papers of previous governments.
When new Prime Ministers reach Number 10, the first person
who will greet them once they step inside is the Cabinet Secretary.
When the new Prime Minister arrives, I am waiting behind that door.
The first thing I say is, "Congratulations, Prime Minister, and welcome to Number 10".
The Prime Minister and his top mandarin
then go to the Cabinet room.
And then we have a few words
about what the first few bits of business are.
There are various nuclear and intelligence
issues which new Prime Ministers need to be briefed on very quickly.
One of the things the Cabinet Secretary has to do is to juggle
those first 24 hours in managing this process
of getting the urgent done, the urgent and important.
In a sense what is happening there is a wrestle for power.
The Cabinet Secretary is trying to capture the Prime Minister.
Here's the new Prime Minister, hasn't been in office,
slightly in awe of this grand figure from the Civil Service and he wants to establish
the relationship straight away of mentor and mentee.
Part of that is about trying to overawe the Prime Minister
about his job, to put him in awe of what he's actually taking on here.
The Cabinet Office on Whitehall adjoins Downing Street
and is linked to Number 10 by an internal corridor.
And there have been many subtle struggles for power
between Prime Ministers and their top mandarin,
for the Cabinet Office itself was born out of the barrel of a gun.
# Oh, we don't want to lose you
# But we think you ought to go
# For your King and your country
# Both need you so... #
The First World War revealed the need for a central command structure in the British government.
There was a shambles of communication between the Cabinet
and the military, with orders being confused and not acted on.
Things came to a climax with the Battle of the Somme.
It cost 100,000 British lives.
It led directly to the creation of the Cabinet Office.
It's a Johnny-come-lately as a government department,
it only started in December 1916.
There had been a Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence before that,
but it wasn't until Lloyd George became Prime Minister
that he decided that they needed a Cabinet Secretary, as in a Cabinet secretary.
Of course before that, the proceedings of the Cabinet were not noted.
So, it was not uncommon for people to come out of those meetings, from which there was no agenda
and there were no minutes, with different views as to what had been decided.
It took the Kaiser and a total war to get Whitehall to sort itself out
in terms of running the Great War with a sense of supreme command,
everything coming up to a hierarchy, to a pinnacle in the War Cabinet.
In the 1916, David Lloyd George became Prime Minister,
having forced out his predecessor.
Lloyd George was a charismatic figure.
He had a dramatised biopic made, which showed how, as Prime Minister,
he was determined completely to reorganise the system he'd inherited.
Lloyd George saw that the Cabinet had swollen dramatically to a record size.
He decided to create a streamlined War Cabinet of seven.
Lloyd George set up the first Cabinet Office
to ensure the War Cabinet's decisions
were circulated and carried out across Whitehall.
The Prime Minister chose as his first Cabinet Secretary
a Royal Marine turned Whitehall warrior called Maurice Hankey.
Hankey was to hold the post for the next two decades, serving six Prime Ministers.
He was known in Whitehall as the man of secrets.
The only time Hankey ever talked publicly
was at the very end of his life, when he told of his appointment.
On the first day that Lloyd George became Prime Minister,
when I shook hands with him and he was lying back in a chair
he said, "You are shaking hands with the most miserable man on Earth."
Lloyd George felt miserable because of the weight on his shoulders
in the worst war the world had ever seen.
Fearing Britain might lose, he gave Hankey the task
of greatly strengthening the centre of government and ensuring that
the Prime Minister's writ would run across the whole of Whitehall.
Maurice Hankey was absolutely at the centre of the web
for information coming in, and knowing what was happening and being absolutely crucial.
He was so crucial that at the end of the First World War, parliament voted him a gratuity of £25,000.
That is well over £1 million in today's money.
That shows how important he was seen to be.
Over the past century, as the Cabinet Office has grown in power,
it's had a nomadic existence across Whitehall,
before settling in its present home.
Number 70 Whitehall has a Victorian facade,
but it stands on the site of King Henry VIII's old Whitehall Palace,
parts of which still exist and reek of history, political skulduggery,
and Hogwartian quirkiness.
You enter the Cabinet Office through
the perfectly preserved Tudor Cockpit Passage.
The second Queen Elizabeth was escorted on a visit here
20 years ago by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler.
This was the site of the old Whitehall palace, that was used
for sports and pastimes in the times of Henry VIII.
In these buildings here, the Tudor and Stuart kings used to play tennis
while the courtiers watched them through
the window and kept the score.
I always feel that's rather symbolic of the Cabinet Office work.
The kings and their courtiers would watch cock-fighting
and bear baiting here, and they'd hunt stags in the palace grounds,
which are now St James's Park.
Upstairs, the remains of King Henry VIII's real or royal tennis court,
with its 40 ft drop to the ground floor, still survives.
The 18th century Treasury room still houses the gilded chair of state
that was made for King George I.
Here, the king would chair meetings of his ministers
that became known as the Cabinet.
But there's another part of the Cabinet Office
that remains off-limits for security reasons.
Between the Cabinet Office, which fronts on to Whitehall,
and Number 10, there's a locked door.
And that symbolised, I always felt, the separation of the Cabinet Office from Number 10.
Of course, it was famously featured
in Yes Prime Minister, when Jim Hacker get so fed up
with Sir Humphrey coming through the whole time, he changes the lock on the door.
Bernard! I'm coming through to Number 10.
I'm sorry Sir Humphrey, no, it is not convenient.
I'm coming anyway.
He thinks he's coming anyway.
Open this door! Open this door!
You'll pay for this! Open the bloody door!
All that's historically accurate.
In fact, the first week that I was Cabinet Secretary,
I went to go through that locked door
into Number 10, and found that there was a man changing the lock.
And I said, "That's discouraging, I've only been in the office two or three days.
"Has the Prime Minister told you to change the locks?"
The man who was fitting it had seen the programme because he said,
"No, somebody's lost their key, so we've got to change the lock,
"but I have a key here for you, Sir Robert".
Was that famous green baize door ever locked in your time?
It was locked, but I had a key.
We didn't at that time have a press button pad.
It was all on key.
-But I had the key.
-But the key always fitted, did it?
Oh, the key always fitted, yes. There was no episode
like that in Yes, Prime Minister! I never had any trouble.
I didn't have to crawl over the window sills or anything like that.
Did it ever happen to you that you couldn't
get through the door or into Number 10?
Not yet is what I would say.
So far, so good.
I'm afraid I have to reveal to you, the door doesn't exist anymore.
The viewers that are used to Spooks
would be able to recognise the fact that it's now one of those
tubes that you stand in and then are allowed out the other side.
The door is no more.
Since the Second World War, the Cabinet Secretary's palatial 18th-century office
has housed a succession of real-life Sir Humphreys.
Their relationship with Number 10 and the interplay
between personality and power form a hidden history of life at the top of government.
The first post-war Cabinet secretary served for nearly 20 years
and was seen as a role model by his successors.
He was Sir Norman Brook,
the product of Wolverhampton School and Oxford.
A high-flyer in the Home Office,
Brook had been deputy secretary in Churchill's War Cabinet.
He was also, literally, a cabinet maker.
He made his own furniture in his workshop.
Norman Brook was an extraordinary figure.
He oversaw the building of the huge mixed economy and welfare state,
all the nationalisations, creation of the Health Service and so on, in the Attlee years.
Also at the same time, because of the Cold War, he was
essentially the number one architect of the Cold War secret state.
Norman Brook saw it as his job to think the unthinkable
if the Cold War were to turn hot.
Communist Russia had recently acquired its own H-bomb.
As a nuclear power itself, Britain was seen as a prime target
for a pre-emptive Soviet strike.
At the Cabinet Office, Norman Brook worked in total secrecy
on the doomsday scenario.
Norman Brook constructed this enormously elaborate
and immensely secret state to cope with the Cold War,
where intelligence met civil defence, where it met home defence,
where all the plans for post-attack were made.
Norman Brook was seen as the indispensable right-hand man
by four successive Prime Ministers, from Labour's Clement Attlee,
to the Conservative Harold Macmillan, whom he served for seven years.
Norman Brook was a great public servant.
He was always calm, always unruffled,
without any show, without any glamour.
He was the friend and adviser of more than one Prime Minister
and to all in turn, he gave equal loyalty and devotion.
Norman Brook had shown that devotion to Anthony Eden,
Macmillan's controversial predecessor as Prime Minister.
At Number 10, Eden had secretly conspired
with the French and Israelis to invade Egypt.
Troops were sent to seize back the Suez Canal from Colonel Nasser,
the Egyptian military strongman.
The Suez invasion sparked bitter controversy in Britain.
Downing Street was under siege and inside Number 10,
the Cabinet Secretary Norman Brook revealed to the government chief whip
that Eden had just given him a highly irregular order.
Norman Brook came out of the Cabinet room and said,
"He's told me to burn the lot of them".
-To burn the lot of what?
-The secret documents?
Well, yes, the government documents.
And is that what Norman Brook, the Cabinet secretary, went off and did?
And what did you feel about that?
Well, the Cabinet secretary was carrying out
the Prime Minister's orders about Cabinet documents.
But what did you feel about the Cabinet Secretary going off
and destroying secret documents, which, if they'd become public,
-would prove the Prime Minister had lied to the house?
What did you feel about that?
Well, the Cabinet secretary was doing his job.
-He was only obeying orders?
Anthony Eden asked Norman Brook to destroy the Cabinet papers
relating to the conspiracy over Suez, which Norman Brook did.
He did, I know that.
Would you, if you had been Cabinet secretary,
ordered by the Prime Minister to destroy Cabinet papers
related to a conspiracy for an invasion, would you have done so?
No one knows how you behave until you're in that situation,
but I hope I would not.
I mean, I am obsessive about paper, I keep everything.
I think I would have found the whole episode of Suez impossible,
very difficult to serve.
I think a matter of conscience would have, seriously...
Indeed I've talked to permanent secretaries of that time
and I think there were a number of permanent secretaries
who were very seriously close to resigning in protest about it.
I think it's reprehensible, and I think the right answer
would be to tell the Prime Minister you'd destroyed them,
but you'd actually not.
I don't think, necessarily, it's what I'd have done,
I wouldn't have... I wouldn't have destroyed papers.
Because it was, in a sense, my reputation as well.
I mean, I think it's a pretty despicable thing to do.
Brook did destroy them, but being a good civil servant,
he put a note on the file saying that he'd been instructed by
the Prime Minister to destroy them.
Over two decades, Norman Brook kept the confidences and the trust
of all four of the very different Prime Ministers he served.
And he never gave an interview.
He really was a man of secrets.
There's no way of calibrating the weight of secrecy any body
carries at any one particular time, for obvious reasons, because you don't know what they know.
But Norman Brook, per square inch, had more secrets than any other figure in post-war Whitehall.
Right through until the moment he retired in 1963.
As Cabinet Secretary, Brook remained unknown to the public,
and his successor was an equally self-effacing figure.
Sir Burke Trend served Labour's Harold Wilson
and three other Prime Ministers over a decade from 1963.
Trend had been top man at the Treasury
and had a double First in Classics from Oxford.
But he saw Britain becoming a much more violent place.
Industrial disputes were turning ugly.
And there were bombing campaigns on the British mainland
by the Provisional IRA and other terrorist groups.
To counter threats to the security of the state,
Burke Trend's Cabinet Office had set up a new emergency centre.
It was to become known to the public by its sinister near-acronym, COBRA.
The highly secret new centre's task was to co-ordinate
the intelligence and security forces and respond fast to a crisis.
COBRA is, actually, it sounds great, but it does in fact stand for
Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, rather mundane,
but it's the place where we can brief the Prime Minister
and bring together people through video screens and audio links
and various sophisticated technology.
There are accusations that opening COBRA is a bit of a
"look at me jumping" kind of response,
but, actually, it's a way of making sure
you've got security, intelligence, the police, emergency services.
Whatever you need for the nature of the crisis itself
can be brought together in one place and able to communicate
very rapidly with one another.
You were able to make decisions, have the drum beat so that
you're getting the latest information. These are very fast-moving situations.
Find out what's happening, make clear what everyone should say publicly,
what new information you need, what new actions you need to take
and then get on with making sure that you deal with the incident.
COBRA In the early 1970s, when it was first constructed, was also the war room.
The decision-taking forum for transition to World War Three.
At one end of it, separated from the main committee room, was the nuclear release room where
the Prime Minister would have gone if he was in town and if he wasn't incinerated to do it.
It was the only nuclear bunker in a capital of a nuclear power
that has ever been above ground. Quite extraordinary.
But COBRA remains the first port of call
to co-ordinate responses to national emergencies.
It's a significant legacy of Sir Burke Trend's time as Cabinet Secretary.
In his ten years as top mandarin, he was highly regarded as a subtle
adviser by the four Prime Ministers he served, with one exception.
Well, Burke Trend's style
wasn't to tell you what to do, and certainly not to tell ministers
what to do, but to lead them
by a notion of posing questions,
which is sometimes called a Socratic approach,
which would bring them to the solutions that he thought were probably appropriate.
And he'd put this in his briefing for the Prime Minister,
and when Mr Heath came in, Mr Heath, being a more managerial style
of Prime Minister, expected people to tell him what they recommended he should do.
In exasperation at this, at one stage, wrote on the top of the minutes, "I'm the Prime Minister,
"I ask the questions, you're supposed to give the answers."
Labour's Harold Wilson took a rather different view of Burke Trend's
abilities to see his way through the fog of government.
Harold Wilson described Burke Trend as the best civil servant he'd known.
The American President Richard Nixon's state visit to Britain
provided a telling instance of how the Cabinet Secretary could subtly
diffuse embarrassment for a Prime Minister.
Wilson had invited the President to address a meeting of the Cabinet.
His ministers and Burke Trend were waiting in the cabinet room to hear Nixon.
Nixon gave a brilliant exposition of the world as it was seen
through the eyes of the United States President.
Held us all, extremely interesting.
Then, there was a sort of pause before we went on
with the discussion, when coffee was brought in.
And in some way, I still can't quite work out, in either putting milk
or sugar or not into his coffee, he managed to pick up one of the very heavy inkwells,
which were on the table in Downing Street, and pour the ink over his hands.
A scene of absolute consternation broke out.
I mean, Nixon was consternated by it, if that's a word, but everybody else was.
Burke Trend, the extremely austere secretary of the cabinet,
spilled a jug of cream over his own trousers.
I've never been able to decide whether this was because he was so shaken by what was happening,
or because he thought that if he introduced the idea that a bit of slapstick was Downing Street habit,
it might make the President feel more at home.
One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever witnessed.
After Burke Trend, the next guardian of the door from the Cabinet Office to Number 10 was Sir John Hunt.
The product of public school, Cambridge and naval intelligence,
he was dedicated to building up his personal power across Whitehall.
John Hunt had a very strong sense that he was on this earth
for a divine purpose.
And that that purpose was to help government operate effectively.
I mentioned in my diary at the time, I said,
"Hunt's face is curiously colourless,
"and his mouth flickers in a quick smile.
"His eyes are fierce. He could run a machine very efficiently on behalf of any ideology."
When Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974, he brought
Bernard Donoghue from LSE to work with Marcia Williams and Joe Haines as his closest special advisers.
They were to provide a political counterweight to the official
advice from John Hunt and the Civil Service.
And each night, a battle would be fought
over what went into Harold Wilson's red boxes.
Sir John Hunt felt that the Cabinet Secretary should have the last word
with the Prime Minister, so he was deeply upset that
I'd always wait until after he'd submitted the Cabinet Office policy memo to the Prime Minister, and then
I'd read it in the Prime Minister's box in the private office and then submit some comments from us.
No word of Hunt's behind-the-scenes battles for Wilson's ear reached the public.
For Hunt was an ardent believer in complete secrecy about the inner workings of government.
But all of that was to change as a result of diaries written by Richard Crossman,
who'd been one of Harold Wilson's senior cabinet ministers.
Crossman had kept extremely candid accounts of what really went on in Cabinet, which he wanted published,
but which John Hunt wanted the High Court to ban.
Hunt emerged from the shadows to give evidence in court.
Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary said, in answer to questions,
the Crossman diaries were in a different class
from other political memoirs.
One principal departure was that Crossman had attributed individual
views to ministers in cabinet meetings.
Crossman's behaviour, he said,
made it impossible for a cabinet to work together in mutual trust.
It's the first time that people see the whites of the eyes, if you like,
of the Cabinet Secretary under pressure where they're up against it.
And that must have been extremely uncomfortable
for someone who had spent most of their life in the back room,
suddenly, to be thrust into the limelight.
Hunt and the government lost the case and the Crossman diaries were published.
Hunt's successor was to be similarly exposed to the public.
Sir Robert Armstrong was a product of Eton, Oxford and the Treasury.
Unusually, for a Cabinet Secretary, he served just one Prime Minister,
And his critics claimed that he came to identify himself too closely with serving her interests.
She was a conviction politician.
She and I got along very well together.
And I survived the course with her.
Any other points that we wish to raise, generally, before we go on to the main business?
Like all Cabinet Secretaries, Armstrong would sit
at the Prime Minister's right-hand side at Cabinet.
He had the role of Mrs Thatcher's enforcer.
It required vetting her appointment of new ministers.
One in particular, the colourful Alan Clark, had attracted the attention of MI5.
I had a meeting with good old Armstrong. He sent for me.
He just produced a couple of files and said there are certain
matters which the Prime Minister has asked me to draw to your attention.
He said, you've been spoken of with approval.
So I...preened myself.
"Quite right too," I almost said.
By the National Front,
We had a report from the security services who expressed
worry about the possibility of a relationship with the National Front.
He said that he had no relations with the National Front and he'd no use for them.
Admittedly, he had some right-wing views and they sometimes
commended them, but that didn't mean that he had anything to do with them, and I accepted that.
And then he produced another file, he said,
"There are certain matters in relation to your personal conduct
"that would make you open to blackmail."
I mean, my personal qualities are probably...
open to criticism sometimes.
What was he referring to?
He was referring to...
I suppose he was referring to relationships with...
with other women that might...
Well, we've seen what relationships with women can do to ministers.
And he said, "You don't need to worry about that," he said.
"These affairs are no secret, at all.
"All of my friends know about them and my wife knows all about them,
"and if anybody tried to blackmail me about them, I should say publish and be damned."
I thought that was probably true, so I reported, accordingly, to Mrs Thatcher.
Elsewhere in his diary, he said, "If you want my opinion
"of Robert Armstrong, he's a full colonel in the KGB."
Well, he was given to saying things like that, wasn't he?
In fact, the Cabinet Office is the epicentre of British intelligence,
and Robert Armstrong was Mrs Thatcher's top advisor on security and espionage.
He was to find himself embroiled in the notorious Spycatcher affair.
It involved the maverick MI5 agent, Peter Wright, who had written
sensational memoirs that were to be published in Australia
where he lived in exile. Mrs Thatcher wanted Armstrong
to fly over to give evidence in the Australian High Court to prevent publication.
The Prime Minister said, "Well, will you go, Robert?
"I'm not going to instruct you to go,
"I'm asking you to go. You're free to say no."
Do you think you really were free to say no?
Well, I didn't think I should say no, certainly,
but I think...
She questioned, expecting the answer yes.
She quite deliberately put it like that, so that I shouldn't feel
that I was being instructed to go, against my will, as it were.
I don't think Robert Armstrong should have been invited by
the Prime Minister to go to Australia
to defend the British government's position on Spycatcher.
That was for ministers.
It's intensely political.
But Armstrong's trip had a shaky start, for the Cabinet Secretary
was unaccustomed to facing the media spotlight.
They crowded around me, and...
they got in the way, one of the cameras...
These are the photographers?
Yes. And I hate flying anyway, and it was quite a sensitive mission,
and I felt very, I must have lost my cool for a moment.
What did you do?
I pushed a camera out of the way.
Pushed a camera, rather than punched the photographer?
I didn't punch the photographer.
I just thrust the camera out of the way. I think it fell out of his hand,
onto the floor. I don't know whether it was damaged or not,
but he never sent me the bill.
But in the Australian court, Armstrong came up against
one of the country's most aggressive lawyers, who accused
the Cabinet Secretary of lying in the witness box.
So, I said that I hadn't told any lies.
Perhaps I had been economical with the truth.
And the British press jumped on to this phrase,
economical with the truth, and wrote it up as lying, in the press.
It became a notorious phrase.
It's got me into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
I admired Robert for going, but I think he should have said no.
He really put his reputation on the line for his Prime Minister and his government.
It must have been ghastly from beginning to end.
Robert Armstrong retired after eight years as Cabinet Secretary.
His critics claimed he'd been too willing to do the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher's bidding.
Armstrong's successor, Sir Robin Butler, was determined to do things
differently and restored the Cabinet Secretary to his traditional role
of serving the Cabinet as a whole.
Butler had long been seen as the golden boy of Whitehall, destined to reach the top.
He had been a high flyer who had gained a rugby Blue,
and first class degree after a privileged education.
Harrow, University College Oxford, history and philosophy.
From Oxford, Butler went straight to the Treasury, the elite civil service
training ground, but his promising career was almost
shattered in its first year when he appeared in the Treasury Christmas play.
He had organised an explosion that was so violent, that a glass bowl
flew off the stage and crashed onto the head of Sir Norman Brook, the legendary Cabinet Secretary.
But Butler was forgiven and went on to work in Number 10
as private secretary for a succession of Prime Ministers,
before reaching the top of the Whitehall greasy pole.
Lovely. Really warm.
I'm timing it, you see. Every lap.
I've got to do it in under 20 minutes.
The new Cabinet Secretary would keep fit in his local lido in south London.
I'm Sir Humphrey, and yes, yes, Minister.
So, my job is to...
be the chief engineer in the engine room of the Government.
The normally hidden engine room of the government,
was the weekly meeting in the Cabinet Office of the Sir Humphreys from each Whitehall ministry,
the Permanent Secretaries. At the meeting, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary,
the mandarins seek to co-ordinate government business for the week ahead.
It is, in effect, a real Shadow Cabinet.
Butler wanted the Cabinet Office to work for the whole Cabinet, and not
be used by Number 10, solely for the benefit of the Prime Minister.
I have always had to the view that the Cabinet Office
has a different role from that of Number Ten.
There are some people who think that the Cabinet Office ought to be
a sort of Prime Minister's department.
But I think the system works best if the staff,
hopefully quite small number of staff who are in Number 10,
both civil servant and political,
wholly devoted to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's interests.
And the Cabinet Office are the honest brokers in the system.
The Prime Minister Butler worked for longest, as Cabinet Secretary, was John Major.
They had a close relationship, sharing many interests, such as cricket.
And Butler found Major to be the best negotiator he'd worked for.
But it was a turbulent time.
And Butler also had to deal with the very powerful figure of Michael Heseltine,
who Major appointed to be his Deputy Prime Minister.
Hezza was to be based in the Cabinet Office with a brief that ranged across the whole of government.
John Major asked Michael Heseltine to come through and talk to me about
ideas which Michael had for the structure of government.
As we were coming to the end of that discussion, he said, "Of course,
"I'll need a room worthy of the Deputy Prime Minister."
And so he said, "This room here, you've got, is a very nice room."
Robin had the most palatial office you've ever seen.
No Cabinet minister has ever had an office like that.
And I said to him, "Nice to see you, Robin," and everything, and sat down,
looked around and I said, "This is a very nice office."
Michael Heseltine then told Robin Butler the story of a previous Tory Cabinet minister called Duncan Sands
who had been so impressed by the grand office of his top mandarin,
that he felt he should take it over for himself.
How did he react when you told him that story?
I think he thinks you said, "Why don't I have this office?
"This is a very nice office."
Well, I don't think I ever quite said that, but the very clear implication was that Duncan Sands
had said he'd have that office, and I was about to do the same.
So, I said,
"This is traditionally the Cabinet Secretary's room."
But I could see that wasn't going to take the trick, and so I said to him,
"We've got an even better room for you upstairs."
So, he said, "Oh, well, can I see it?"
So I said, "We'll have to get it ready for you, and so, let's make
"an appointment for tomorrow morning, and come back and see it."
And so he went off, and I went out to my staff and said, "I've no idea what room I'm talking about,
"but what can we do?"
So they said, "There's conference room B,"
which is the size of...
half a tennis court,
but there's a huge table in it.
So, I said, "Well, even if you have to get the Royal Engineers over from the Ministry of Defence,
"get the table out." The next day, I took Michael Heseltine upstairs
and we walked in at the door which is one corner of the room, and we looked across this room.
It was huge!
Much too big, but it was a defensive response from Sir Humphrey.
He says that you said to him, as you looked at the office,
you said to him, "I think you and I are going to get along."
That's exactly what I would have said.
And from that point, there was no difficulty.
But there was a sequel to the story.
Which was the day of the election, when we lost the election,
in '97, and Robin, I'm told, was seen in his shirtsleeves,
helping people to restore the Cabinet committee room
that had been my office, to make sure that no-one else got it.
When New Labour came to power, Tony Blair wanted radically to reform
the traditional way of running the government.
And Robin Butler fell out with Blair over the new Prime Minister's plans
to give Number 10 much greater power and control over Cabinet ministers.
Butler strongly objected to Blair's style of working informally
with his close, personally appointed political advisers, like Alastair Campbell.
A style that Butler was later to dub "sofa government".
Tony Blair said about you that Robin Butler was a traditionalist
with all the strengths and weaknesses and reverence for a tradition that would imply.
Is that a fair picture of you as Cabinet Secretary?
I don't think it is a fair picture.
I was associated with a lot of reforms to the Civil Service.
Some of which some of my colleagues thought went too far.
And, yeah, I believe in progress and reform.
If the accusation is that I supported the traditional Cabinet government,
as opposed to sofa government,
that is an accusation that I'm perfectly willing to plead guilty to.
I do think the attack on sofa government is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard.
The weakness of the argument in particular is shown by basing it on an item of furniture
rather than anything else. If that's really important.
It doesn't matter if you're sitting on a sofa or round a coffin-shaped table when you're making a decision.
It is a sort of death rattle of the mandarin classes.
People venting their anger as they see a system disappear.
The Blairites saw Butler as the quintessential Sir Humphrey figure.
The smooth reassurance on the surface masking the obstructiveness beneath.
What the Butler saw was the very different relationships
he'd had as Cabinet Secretary with the three prime ministers he'd served.
I was once asked what was the difference between working for
Margaret Thatcher and John Major and Tony Blair.
I would say that, if you said something critical of that sort to Margaret Thatcher,
she would be affronted. "What do you mean, how could you say that?"
But it wouldn't rupture your relationship with her.
If you said something critical to John Major he'd be sad.
He'd say, "Oh, do you really think that we made such a mess of it?"
And if you said something critical to Tony Blair he'd say,
"You're absolutely right, quite agree with you."
But you wouldn't really know whether he did.
Butler left Number 10 after agreeing with Tony Blair on the senior mandarin to replace him.
And the outgoing Cabinet Secretary had tipped the wink to his successor.
Robin said to me, "I don't want you to acknowledge you know this
"but the Prime Minister is going to ask to see you this afternoon.
"He's going to ask if you will be prepared to be Cabinet Secretary.
"I wanted to prepare you for it, to make sure you say the right thing."
I was bowled over by this. It was extraordinary.
Sure enough, the phone call came. I went into the room and sat down.
Tony Blair said, "I want to talk about how we're going to tackle the job."
I said, "Hold on, should you...?"
He said, "Robin will have told you. I want you to be Cabinet Secretary.
"Let's talk about what we're going to do." We went straight into the job.
I have this theory I've never been asked to do it.
I'm not objecting, I was delighted!
Blair's new Cabinet Secretary had a can-do reputation.
And the public-school-and-Cambridge educated Wilson
aimed to become the Prime Minister's indispensable right-hand man,
but he faced stiff competition.
What Tony wanted to do was to sort of operate through
his own tight, personally appointed circle.
I think that Richard Wilson, when he became Cabinet Secretary following Robin,
never quite succeeded in overcoming that slight distance, that slight detachment
that Tony had injected into the relationship between him and his top civil servants.
Richard felt that Robin had allowed himself to be too distant and too outside Number 10.
Richard made his name as the deputy secretary in the Cabinet Office
who had resolved problems for Mrs Thatcher and really played a central role.
He wanted to be in that role but he fell into this category
of trying to force himself too much on the Prime Minister,
which then made the Prime Minister less keen to have his advice.
His reacting against what he perceived Robin to have done
led him to be perhaps too keen, too enthusiastic.
For his part, Blair had visions of annexing the Cabinet Office and its staff
to work directly for him in a new, powerful, all-singing, all-dancing Department of the Prime Minister.
A couple of times while we were in Number 10 Tony looked at the idea of having a Prime Minister's Department,
whether you should reinforce Number 10 and make it into a full department
with the requisite number of civil servants, budgets and what-have-you.
Richard didn't like the idea at all.
He thought we were making a mistake and he said it was unconstitutional and tried to stop us doing it.
When we tried to appoint more staff to Number 10 he thought we were doing it by the back door, and vetoed that.
I have to admit to you that I was pretty strongly of the view
that it was not a good idea.
Partly because of my abiding belief in collective responsibility.
I also think it was in a way about accumulating more power to a man
who I thought was already remarkably powerful
and I think that this concept of building him up into a President was one
which was really very dangerous politically in all sorts of ways.
The presidential Tony Blair was becoming increasingly disillusioned,
both with his Cabinet Secretary and with the Cabinet Office itself,
and especially its much-trumpeted role of being able
to act quickly and effectively in the face of a sudden emergency.
In September 2000, a dramatic challenge came out of the blue.
A motley group of farmers and lorry drivers seeking fuel-duty cuts
used French-style tactics to blockade oil refineries.
Tony Blair, we told you back in May that we had troubles in the countryside.
Maybe you'll listen now, when we get the same effect as what's happening in France.
Less than 100 people in the protest,
organised with scarcely any structure and just mobile phones,
came uncomfortably close to bringing the economy to a halt in the space of very few days.
The protesters snarled up major roads and blockaded city centres.
And with motorists panic-buying, the pumps were running dry.
Tony Blair ordered his Number 10 staff and the Cabinet Secretary
to get an immediate grip on the situation.
What we did was open up COBRA at the Cabinet Office Briefing Room.
And we put a very big effort into making that an effective mechanism
for dealing with the crisis.
And what was Tony Blair's reaction when the petrol tankers stayed stuck in the refineries?
Because it ought to be possible to make that happen from this powerful centre of government.
People didn't realise at the time quite how close it was.
Hospitals were about to close down. All the ATMs in Britain were about to close down.
We were thinking of using emergency powers and putting the military on the street. It came very close.
Only at the last minute were we able to get the thing moving again.
Alastair Campbell in his diaries said
that the Cabinet Office and COBRA,
-defended to the hilt by Richard Wilson, was hopeless during that.
That's what he says in his diary.
Well, we weren't hopeless, actually.
In fact, we were pretty good.
I remember that there was a view in Number 10 that we were hopeless.
I would argue... My memory is it was the occasion when the Prime Minister
began to see that COBRA and the Civil Contingencies Unit
were useful and important in times of crisis.
But Richard Wilson now became the victim of a number of personal attacks on his competence.
Unnamed sources close to the Prime Minister told the media
that Tony Blair had lost confidence in his Cabinet Secretary.
Richard felt that the Downing Street machine had been ganging up on him and briefing against him.
I think it made him feel unsettled.
We got quite an outburst from him at one point on that, which was quite difficult to handle.
Well, he had a rather stormy encounter with Tony
and then withdrew behind the green baize door, because Tony gave him back as good as he got,
when Richard was being fairly dismissive of
the record of the government and the way the government worked.
Tony reacted quite strongly to this sort of... We made peace afterwards.
I am not aware that he ever lost confidence in me.
My relationship with him was good right up to
the point at which I retired. He asked for my views on things.
It's also true that my power began to wane,
once my successor was appointed, which was April 2002.
But I still went to meetings in Number 10.
Blair's third Cabinet Secretary in five years was Andrew Turnbull,
who'd been a Number 10 Private Secretary.
Educated at grammar school and Oxford, Turnbull used the same lido as Robin Butler.
I'm the Permanent Secretary of the Department of the Environment.
Turnbull had gone on to become top mandarin at the Treasury.
Right, OK. Well, I'd better go, then.
Let's put that in my...put that in my shoe.
He's your top policy man...
He was Margaret Thatcher's Private Secretary, now he's Cabinet Secretary.
And John Major's actually.
As Cabinet Secretary, did you try and get closer in terms of working with Tony Blair than
you had seen it happen with both Robin Butler and Richard Wilson?
Well, I think I tried. I don't think I got a lot closer than they did.
Erm, I just don't...
I think that wasn't the way that they wanted to work.
Tony Blair never really viewed any of his Cabinet Secretaries
as those really sort of trusted, experienced, safe pairs of hands,
in the way that previous prime ministers had regarded the holders of that job.
His time as Cabinet Secretary sometimes reminded Turnbull of the episode of Yes, Prime Minister
when Jim Hacker had managed to get one over Sir Humphrey.
Oh, look, it's Humphrey.
BURGLAR ALARM SOUNDS
It's been enshrined in history, the famous episode where Sir Humphrey
is being taunted by the removal of his key
and the poor sod has to climb round the windows and is banging on it saying, "Please let me in."
That is the fate that...befalls you if you become seriously marginalised.
Did that fate ever before you?
No, I don't think I was seriously marginalised.
Maybe I was...marginalised, but not seriously so.
So how frustrating did you find your time as Cabinet Secretary?
I didn't think it was that frustrating at the time. As I look back...
I'm more frustrated.
Turnbull handed over to Gus O'Donnell after four dispiriting years.
Sir Gus came from a rather different background from traditional Cabinet Secretaries.
He'd gone to a south-London state school and read economics at Warwick University.
After a PhD at Oxford, he'd been a university lecturer, before joining the Treasury as an economist.
At the Treasury he rose fast.
And after a spell as Press Secretary to the Prime Minister John Major,
O'Donnell became Permanent Secretary to the Treasury under the Chancellor Gordon Brown.
Gus, how are you? Good to see you.
The south Londoner was a keen footballer and a fan of Manchester United.
I am a Cockney Red. I have supported Manchester United all my life through thick and thin.
The Cockney Red's people skills and media experience
endeared him both to Brown and Tony Blair, and O'Donnell was made Cabinet Secretary in 2005.
Welcome to the Cabinet Secretary's room.
This has got a lot of history to it.
Just outside the historic room, O'Donnell installed this motivational slogan.
The slogan was originally used about a martyred French saint
who was said to have walked for six miles,
carrying his own severed head under his arm while preaching a sermon.
After Tony Blair lost his head to Gordon Brown, O'Donnell remained Cabinet Secretary.
Sitting next to Brown, O'Donnell believed part of his job was to see round political corners.
Looking into his crystal ball, the Mystic Meg of the Cabinet Office set his officials to work.
They acted out the roles of politicians in different scenarios for a hung parliament.
It's kind of summed up by the Boy Scouts' motto - be prepared.
We wanted to be prepared for all possible outcomes.
I'd like to be able to tell you that we worked through that successfully,
but in fact we had individual civil servants
playing the parts of the different leaders.
And, as civil servants, we failed to come up with a deal there, because
actually we'd given very tight negotiating remits to those people.
In reality the political parties were much more successful in that and they managed to come to an agreement.
After the general election had produced a hung parliament and four days of negotiation
in the Cabinet Office, the new coalition government had been born - with Gus O'Donnell as the midwife.
For me, as Cabinet Secretary, this was a momentous occasion.
Post-war there hasn't been a full coalition government.
For us, we were in uncharted territories.
What emerged, the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition,
then worked very intensively with the Civil Service to produce their programme for government.
When the co-hosts of the coalition went to their first Cabinet meeting, David Cameron told his ministers
they were the latest additions to the long list that Gus O'Donnell had served as Cabinet Secretary.
85 different Cabinet ministers, so that's, er...
And you've got 15 years to go if you want to be the longest-serving Cabinet Secretary,
which is Maurice Hankey, from 1916 to 1938.
So you're just really starting out.
Like many new prime ministers, David Cameron made immediate changes to the Cabinet Office.
He set up a new White-House-style National Security Council that would work in the Cabinet Office.
The Prime Minister chairs a top-level weekly meeting of the NSC in the Cabinet Room itself.
It brings together our military and spy chiefs with ministers and mandarins.
Their task is to identify, in a strategic way, threats from the enemies of the state.
The heads off the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service
have laid out there is a very serious threat, believe me.
This Prime Minister has taken that, as past prime ministers, very, very seriously indeed.
On the domestic front, Sir Gus says he had a new mantra.
Supporting the Prime Minister and supporting the Deputy Prime Minister,
who's based in the Cabinet Office.
'Well, I would describe myself as the equidistant Cabinet Secretary
'between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.'
From this office where we're filming now, it is, and I've counted it,
50 places to get to the Prime Minister's office
and 50 paces to get to the Deputy Prime Minister's office.
And I think that's a very nice balance to have.
The coalition government has made Sir Gus the highest-profile Cabinet Secretary ever.
And the top trio take the stage with Sir Gus looking every inch the third among equals.
And now the man who really holds the ring. Gus, over to you.
Thank you very much, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister.
'What this has meant for us is that we have a completely different way of operating.'
That's because, as civil servants, we have put across the message
that whenever a policy decision comes up we need to coalitionise it.
That means very early on making sure that it works across the two political parties.
Civil servants in the Cabinet Office are much happier now, with the coalition government,
because by virtue of it being a coalition, they have to discuss everything all the time.
They have to listen to each other's views, they have to have committees again.
I mean, collective government and responsibility really does have to start operating again
when you're welding together two separate parties and putting them together in the same government.
It makes the Cabinet Office much happier, because it sort of fulfils their historic role.
But recently there have been strains in the relationship
between the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister.
Gus O'Donnell, who signs his paperwork with the initials GOD,
wrote a secret memo urging the government to draw up a Plan B for the economy
if the coalition's Plan A of huge spending cuts doesn't work.
Cameron was furious when the memo leaked to the media.
As far as your relationship with David Cameron is concerned,
it's said that he had "words" with you after a memo which you've written about Plan B had leaked.
I'm not going to get involved in discussions about current policy.
Not going to get involved!
But how long are you going to stay as Cabinet Secretary?
Well, I've been in the job five years.
One thing I'd say is to beat Maurice Hankey's record I need to do another 17, and I'm not going to do that.
In its 100-year history the 10 Cabinet Secretaries have all been men.
And, although Whitehall whispers are that they might be the first ever Dame Humphrey Appleby,
it looks more likely that Sir Gus' successor will also be a man.
Whoever gets the job, the Cabinet Secretary's most sensitive task remains.
Judging when to say, "No, Prime Minister."
Next week, what's really gone on over the years behind the black door of Number 10.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Three-part series by Michael Cockerell starts with the role played over the years by the most powerful unelected member of the government, the Cabinet Secretary.
He is the real life Sir Humphrey from Yes Prime Minister, who rules the civil service from Whitehall's least understood ministry, the Cabinet Office.
Mixing rare archive with candid interviews, the programme tells the story of the many battles for power between Britain's top civil servant and their prime ministers.