A cabinet of all talents

Our regular feature provides an opportunity to pick a ‘dream cabinet’, composed of any living person in the world. You must also abolish one department and create a new one. This edition, Alison Wolf.

Assembling a cabinet of all the talents sounds, straight off, like a fun dinner party game. But suppose I actually want to get something done? I then need a cabinet that – unlike most technocratic assemblies – can survive and navigate politics for a decent length of time, and leave some robust changes behind. That gets a great deal trickier and required some ground rules.

First, and most important, my Cabinet need to ‘do politics’. Businessmen catapulted directly into senior governmental roles almost all fail abjectly, because they think a CEO’s orders go straight down the line, and everyone jumps. Wrong – this is a democratic polity, not a dictatorship.

Second, Cabinet members need staying power. Ideally, I want evidence of successful implementation and relevant experience over a long period. Younger politicians, making careers, are far too prone to headline-grabbing, off-the-cuff policies: often, moving on, they don’t even bother to find out what happened to the ones they left behind. I’m after people who might see a reform through, not those with huge future ambitions.

Thirdly, I want people who are not, psychologically, bound by past decisions in the same job. So I’ve ruled out anyone who has already held Cabinet or senior ministerial office in any UK government. I wanted to rule out anyone I knew, as well, but that proved difficult,.I work on policy, and in some areas, if I know about someone’s existence, then I’ve probably met them at some point. But no close friends, and certainly no family. Full disclosure: I know Paul Collier, Andrew Dilnot and Joel Klein and I once interviewed Jonathan Sumption – though I doubt that he’d remember.

So with these ground rules, here is my assembled Cabinet:

Chancellor of the Exchequer
Trevor Manuel (South Africa)

Manuel was South Africa’s Minister of Finance from 1996 to 2009. Nelson Mandela’s recent death reminded us how grim South Africa’s prospects once seemed, and how much is owed to that one amazing man. But extraordinary as he was, Mandela also needed a great finance minister at his back, able to balance internal demands and politics with financial stability and credibility. In Trevor Manuel he had one.

Foreign Secretary
Lord Ashdown (Paddy Ashdown) (UK)

Exactly the right mix of experience and credibility – military, diplomatic, UK politics, Bosnia.  Good foreign secretaries need a clear set of values and criteria for intervening (or not), acting (or not). He has those too. Too old? No, much the same age as Kerry.

Home Secretary
Nick Hardwick (UK)

There are two major priorities for an incoming Home Secretary: immigration and border controls, and prisons and police. The first is a major issue across northern Europe and I was tempted by a tough Scandinavian – Norway’s Erna Solberg say – or even, since we’re dreaming, by Angela Merkel. But my government is more likely actually to achieve something with police and prisons, so I’ll take our reform-minded Chief Inspector of Prisons instead.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Andrew Tyrie MP (UK)

This is one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom: the person who actually decides how much money every department gets. Alex Salmond is the most effective UK politician active today, but perhaps unable to detach himself from his lifetime cause. So I’ll go for Andrew Tyrie MP, please: head of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee. Super-bright and super-informed on where the bodies are buried, and hopefully 100% on his Prime Minister’s side.

Secretary of State for Defence
Robert Gates (USA)

Served as US Secretary of Defense under Obama as well as Bush, hugely respected. But my top choice because he is also an excellent university president (notably of Texas A&M) and   understands the importance of defence research for science infrastructure and innovation.

Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills


Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany)

SPD politician, currently Foreign Minister in Germany’s Coalition government, and the real force behind the implementation of the Schröder government’s labour market reforms which have served Germany so well since 2008. Should get DWP to function – and welfare and pension dilemmas are the same in all affluent, ageing countries.

Secretary of State for Justice
Lord Sumption (UK)

The relationship between British law and super-national jurisdictions, especially the European Court of Human Rights, has to be tackled: even long-standing champions of the ECHR like Lady Hale (Deputy President of the Supreme Court) are publicly worried. Sumption, a QC till appointed to the Supreme Court last year, has brains, clarity and stupendous energy levels.

Secretary of State for Education
Joel Klein (USA)

Klein was the US federal attorney who successfully prosecuted Microsoft, and was then Chancellor of the vast New York City school system from 2002 till 2010. Shares some of the key Adonis/Gove attitudes, but a secretary of state who views our independent school/state school tensions as an anthropological curiosity would be a welcome change.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Gisela Stuart MP (UK)

Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston. Successive Labour leaders have, incomprehensibly, failed to use her talents, so I can. Has a real understanding of what meaningful devolution to local government might mean, and is an enormously successful practitioner of community-based politics herself.

Secretary of State for Health
Sir Andrew Dilnot (UK)

This is the hardest post of all to fill. Health system expertise doesn’t travel. The job needs someone who knows the NHS but is not obsessed with commissioning, a largely pointless distraction. The NHS is just too big: my secretary of state isn’t there to try and run it (technically not their job anyway) but to think about rational, structurally simple ways to divide up and decentralise. Economist Dilnot (Nuffield College, UK Statistics Authority, ex-IFS) did a great job with social care funding, and might pull it off.

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Charles Clover (UK)

No-one seems to be able to make DEFRA function properly so let’s have a campaigner. Clover wrote The End of the Line: the influential documentary based on it made me and millions of others realise just what we were doing to our seas. It would be good to let him loose on EU fisheries ministers.

Secretary of State for International Development
Professor Sir Paul Collier (UK)

Economics professor who has spent a lifetime in development economics and has a real understanding of politics and the possible, as well as of the development process. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It is a fantastic book and also a deeply practical one.

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Professor Dieter Helm (UK)

Talks more sense, more clearly, on UK energy policy than anyone else I have read. This is a job which badly needs an incumbent who knows about global energy trends, supply and demand; about the importance of prices and the length of time needed for new supplies to come online; and has no baggage where alternative energy sources are concerned. Helm fits the bill.

Secretary of State for Transport
The mystery genius who has been transforming London’s rail network (UK)

Over the last 6 or 7 years London’s internal commuter rail system has been completely transformed. North London’s once-dire ‘Overground’ was re-nationalised and is a triumph. You can now travel SE to NE or NW to SW easily; Crystal Palace is connected to the world, so is Hackney, and indeed from Stratford you can go anywhere. Whoever you are, please come out and do the same for the country as a whole.

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Clive Gillinson (UK)

Cellist and superb arts administrator who was an enormously successful Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and is now Executive and Artistic Director of New York’s Carnegie Hall. He understands both the subsidised and the unsubsidised arts world, and is highly committed to music and arts education.

Which post would you abolish and why?

Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skils

This Department has and had no rationale other than to feed the ego of ‘big beast’ Peter Mandelson, for whom it was created. It then survived because the current government wasn’t into governmental reorganisation, and also, probably, because it offered a billet that would buy off Vince Cable. It is a weird and dysfunctional mish-mash of bits and pieces that would be better off distributed elsewhere.

Your new Secretary of State, their title and responsibilities

Secretary of State for Housing
Michael Bloomberg (USA)

In normal times this wouldn’t be a separate Cabinet level post, but these aren’t normal. Britain, and especially the southeast, has a housing crisis that is worsening by the week. Maybe we shouldn’t have encouraged rapid population growth, but we did: and both the beds-in-sheds now colonising London’s ‘middle ring’ of boroughs, and the housing costs faced by young adults, are a national disgrace. We need a major government-led programme under someone who is able to face down the massed troops of the National Trust, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the ensconced middle classes watching their nest-eggs grow.

So why Bloomberg? Because of a huge achievement of his years as Mayor of New York that hasn’t been much remarked on here in Britain. Over a nine-year period, the Bloomberg administration consistently and determinedly worked away at reforming New York City’s often crazy zoning patterns and regulations – a combination of boring slog and repeated acrimony, and a major element in the city’s recent successes. The wonderful new park along the Brooklyn shoreline, replacing decaying and derelict yards and warehouses, is just the most obvious outcome. Bloomberg must be bored, isn’t running for President, won’t be over-awed by the shires, and would be my dream, number one Housing supremo.