The announcement of Liz Truss’ Cabinet following her appointment as Prime Minister on the 6th September has seen a remarkable moment for diversity in British politics in that not a single holder of one of the ‘great offices of state’ is a white male. In fact, it is the first Cabinet in European History to have that characteristic. But what do we mean by the ‘great offices of state’ and what is the history behind them?
What are the Great Offices of State?
The Great Offices of State refer to the Government Departments that are considered to be the most senior. The Great Officers of State are the Secretaries of State who hold those offices. The offices are:
- Prime Minister
- Chancellor of the Exchequer
- Foreign Secretary
- Home Secretary
By their very nature it is not unusual for a person to hold more than one of the Great Offices during their career. Most Prime Ministers will have held at least one as a stepping stone before reaching the top job. However, only one person has held all four roles. Perhaps surprisingly, that person is James Callaghan:
Prime Minister: 1976-1979
Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1964-1967
Foreign Secretary: 1974-1976
Home Secretary: 1967-1970
Other politicians that have held three of the positions include:
Winston Churchill – Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister
John Major – Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister
Harold MacMillan – Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister
Occasionally there are some Prime Ministers who have not held any of the Great Offices before they attain the position. These usually occur after a long period when their party has been in opposition. Most famous of these are Tony Blair and David Cameron. In fact, neither Blair nor Cameron had held any post in Government, let alone a Great Office.
What is the History of each office and who holds it now?
The Office of Prime Minister
The official title of the Prime Minister is actually ‘First Lord of the Treasury’. This is the title on the door of Number 10 Downing Street.
The position of Prime Minister was not deliberately created. It evolved organically after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A key part of the Glorious Revolution was the acceptance of the ‘Declaration of Right’. This was a document that clearly laid out the limits of the monarch’s power. In essence, this was the starting point of Britain’s ‘constitutional monarchy’. As the power of the monarch reduced, Government Department’s grew in prominence. Of these departments, the Treasury was the most powerful, as it controlled the income and expenditure of the Government. Among the Government, one member was usually seen as the senior. This how the term ‘Prime Minister’ came into being, it was the unofficial title for the Government Minister who was the most influential. Despite this unofficial title, Prime Minister’s at this time still had no formal precedence over other ministers – they were ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals). With Britain’s Cabinet System of Government, the Prime Minister technically remains ‘primus inter pares’, although, in truth, Britain has moved to a more presidential system whereby the Prime Minister is indisputably the most powerful individual in the Government.
It is not clear who can be considered the first Prime Minister. However, the leading contender is undoubtedly Sir Robert Walpole who became First Lord of the Treasury in 1721. One significant element of Walpole’s premiership was his recognition of the constitutional need to retain the confidence of Parliament. This was shown in 1742 when Walpole resigned after winning a vote of no confidence by a very slim margin. Although Walpole still had the confidence of the King, George I, he believed that he was not in a position to hold the complete confidence of the House of Commons.
The position of Prime Minister continued to develop and evolve through time. In the 18th and 19th century it was usual for the Prime Minister to govern from the House of Lords. However, the Great Reform Act of 1832 dramatically increased the size of the electorate in Britain. After this, it became increasingly difficult to justify having a Prime Minister who could not be scrutinised by the elected representatives of the nation. The last Prime Minister to govern from the Lords was Lord Salisbury in 1902. Since then, it has become the accepted convention that Prime Minister’s come from the House of Commons.
Liz Truss was invited by Elizabeth II to form a Government on the 7th September 2022. She was previously Foreign Secretary and won the Conservative Leadership contest against Rishi Sunak with 57.4% of the party membership voting for her.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
The Chancellor of the Exchequer runs the Treasury on a day-to-day basis. They are responsible for preparing the budget – the outline of how money will be raised and spent. One the most iconic political images each year is of the Chancellor posing outside Number 11 Downing Street with his Red Box.
The Chancellor delivers the budget speech in the House of Commons. It usually lasts around an hour, however, the longest ever delivered was 4 hours and 45 minutes by William Gladstone. Also, there is a tradition that the Chancellor is allowed an alcoholic drink during their budget speech, Kenneth Clarke was the last Chancellor to utilise this privilege, enjoying a Whisky while delivering the speech.
It is essential that the Chancellor and Prime Minister have a strong working relationship in order for the Government to run smoothly. However, this has not always been the case. Most famously, Tony Blair had an extremely fractious message with his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Indeed, there were periods when the two were not on talking terms and were briefing against each other in the media.
In the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Chancellor, Liz Truss has appointed one her closest political allies and someone she has been close to for a very long time. In fact, they have even been neighbours. She will hope that this makes for an easier relationship going forward than some PMs and Chancellors have had.
The Foreign Secretary
Officially the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Foreign Secretary has traditionally been an extremely prestigious position, however, it has perhaps become less so since the demise of the Empire. However, it is still a very sought after position because it allows foreign travel and meetings with foreign dignitaries. This can enhance the status of a politician.
The new appointment to be Foreign Secretary under Liz Truss is James Cleverly, who was previously Education Secretary. He does have experience in Foreign Affairs having twice previously been a Foreign Minister.
The Home Office
The Home Office was created in 1782. Its remit has changed considerably through time. One of its most important roles is policing. Traditionally, it was also responsible for the justice system. However, a major reform of the Home Office took place in 2007 that saw the creation of the Ministry of Justice. This new Ministry took charge of the Prison, Probation and Criminal Justice System. This reorganisation took place after a number of oversights in the Home Office that suggested its original remit was becoming unmanageable.
The Home Office has been beset by a number of controversies over the years. These include:
– The Windrush issue whereby it was found that the Home Office had targets for removal of illegal immigrants and that they had deliberately created a ‘hostile environment’.
– A scandal emerged in 2006 when Home Secretary John Reid admitted the government did not know how many foreign criminals were in the UK.
– In 2021 significant amounts of data were lost from the Police National Computer after human error during an update.
Currently, it is responsible for implementing a very controversial policy in the plan to deport illegal immigrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda. This is a policy that both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak committed themselves to maintaining. The new Home Secretary Suella Braverman is wholly committed to the implementation of the policy.
The Great Offices of State are Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Chancellor. At present, the Great Offices are held by the most demographically diverse set of individuals ever appointed and for the very first time there is not a single white male. However, Liz Truss has been accused of appointing her allies to the positions and prioritising loyalty over ability.
Prime Minister – The Head of the Government in the UK. The Prime is almost always the leader of the largest party and therefore also has de facto dominance over Parliament.
Home Secretary – The Cabinet Minister responsible for policing and immigration.
Chancellor of the Exchequer – The Cabinet Minister responsible for Government spending.
Foreign Secretary – The Cabinet Minister responsible for foreign affairs within the British Government.
Budget – The annual statement of expenditure by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.