Long Table: Lord Butler on the Ship of State

The former cabinet secretary, now a Lords crossbencher, describes his life as a peer and the differing demands of serving under five prime ministers.


On a typical day when parliament’s sitting, I’ll go into the House of Lords. It’s my main job now, but I fit other things around it. I’m on a select committee. They meet at some point during the week, usually on a morning. I go in to the Lords, and by chatting with people over lunch pick up all the gossip. There are other things I fit in, including speaking to students doing their thesis on some aspect of government. I’m also on the board of the Academic Health Sciences Centre. And so the days fill up.

If I’m not in London, I’ll be at my home in Norfolk, where life is a bit more straight­forward and the garden is the focus. And at my time of life, grandchildren are the focus as well. So my time there is taken up mainly with family and keeping fit: cycling, walking and swimming.

I feel that I have an obligation to contribute what I can when I’m needed. Not that I think anybody takes much notice of what the Lords say at the moment. Legislation is where we make a real contribution, because they can’t ignore us. We pass amendments and then the Commons has to consider them. The government will usually try to override the changes we make, but in recent circumstances where there’s no majority, it’s difficult for them.

In one bill, meant to carry forward the trade agreements that we’d negotiated through EU membership, the Lords amended that to say that we should stay a member of the customs union and the single market. The previous government didn’t dare bring that back to the Commons, for fear it would be defeated. Such was the paralysis that a lot of legislation that was necessary for implementing Brexit was held up; the Lords played a role in that.

The incumbent cabinet secretary has us five retired cabinet secretaries around every two or three months for a sandwich lunch. Then we may be in touch at other times. Not interfering at all, but if I’m going to do a media interview, I would very often get in touch with his office to make sure that it’s not going to be unhelpful. If he objected, I wouldn’t do it. It’s a courtesy, and also a desire at a very sensitive time not to be unhelpful to him or the country. I might write letters to The Times, explaining what the constitutional position of an issue is, for example.

We’re all very conscious that it’s a critical time for the civil service, which has a very difficult job to do at the moment. When people are, in our view, maligning the civil service, we’re very willing to speak out and stand up for them.

When I was principal private secretary in No 10, in particular to Margaret Thatcher, days started as early as 8am and might not finish until five the following morning. As cabinet secretary, typically I would get in at 8am and wouldn’t leave until 7pm. But the cabinet secretary’s role is a more formal position than being principal private secretary to the prime minister because it’s combined with being head of the civil service. There’d be a lot of representative occasions. So I’d probably be out at events of one sort or another, dinners or civil service events. Then if there was a crisis, you had to be about too.

The dominant thing was the job always came first and you had to make yourself available to do it – you’re the main channel between the rest of Whitehall and the prime minister. When I was principal private secretary in No 10, between the time when my eldest daughter was eight and she was 11, I never saw any of my children in their school uniform. I would leave before they were dressed and come back when they were in bed. But I tried always to make myself do things with the family at the weekend.

The personality of each prime minister affects the job crucially. Some need a lot of support and need you all the time. Some less. John Major was very concerned about the media. With Margaret Thatcher, you had to press her to take any interest in what the media was saying at all. Harold Wilson gave a lot of time to politics. With Tony Blair, the political group around him was stronger, so he was slightly more removed. Under Edward Heath, who was my first prime minister, No 10 was like a monastic establishment. We were mainly men who were the private secretaries. It was like a men’s cabal.

If you were looking for a job description of the cabinet secretary, I think the best one was given by my predecessor Robert Armstrong, who said it was to be the chief engineer on the ship of state. You have the prime ministers as the captain of the ship, and the ministers on the bridge. They make decisions, but that’s got to be transmitted to the engine room, to make sure something actually happens. And that was my job.

28th January 2020