Rishi Sunak’s arrival in Downing Street as the new Prime Minister brings new hope as well as fresh opportunity. His thinking on who should form his Cabinet and serve in his government has been tightly held information. Indeed the absence of informed speculation is remarkable and bodes well for the discipline the new Prime Minister seeks to impose on government. He has set about making his appointments with characteristic despatch.
In addition to forming a government, Sunak will be swiftly inducted into the other, perhaps less well known, aspects of his new job. He will be briefed on the nuclear deterrent and invited to write a letter of last resort for the Commanding Officer of the duty “bomber”. He will receive a full security briefing from the heads of the agencies. The Chief of the Defence Staff will brief him on current military threats and activities. He has already experienced his first audience as Prime Minister with the King. He will also be made aware of the full scale and range of his influence, both private as well as public, on appointments to jobs. Although all eyes are focussed on who serves in the Cabinet and who the PM appoints to serve as department ministers, these jobs are by no means the largest number of jobs which the PM has to decide on and appoint.
Major roles right across public life are handled by the appointments secretariat at No 10. In theory at least, they are in the gift of the Prime Minister. Jobs at universities, the civil service, ambassadorships, plum trustee positions at national galleries and museums, appointments in the Armed Forces, the BBC, regulators, the Bank, and of course the Church of England. Since Sunak is a practising Hindu it is this last one that has generated some attention.
Under current rules, Jews and Roman Catholics are, apparently, prohibited from playing a role in Church of England appointments. Yet Hindus, Moslems, Rastafarians, atheists and humanists are allowed to do so. Thus Sunak would be perfectly within his rights, if he wanted to, to play an active part in appointing Church of England Bishops, Deans and various to the top church jobs. But will he be interested?
Not since Tony Blair has a Prime Minister been known to take an active part in making such appointments. Gordon Brown, with his customary disregard for English tradition shunted the role off to an aide and the Church itself. None of his successors have thought it worthwhile to resurrect any active interest in the process. They have been content to leave it to an aide and the Church and for No 10 to pump out the news of the appointments on the government website, giving at least the appearance of the maintenance of tradition. In reality it is doubtful that most of these Prime Ministers have even been aware of the appointments made in the name of their office, let alone be interested in who has been appointed.
Why, though, the lack of interest in such important jobs ? As we saw with the Queen’s recent death, the senior bishops played a huge role in the days of mourning and then her funeral, showing how integral they are to our often forgotten traditions. For much of English history, and indeed until quite recently, appointments to top church jobs were a matter of great public interest, and the source of huge political interest which consumed much Prime Ministerial attention. William Gladstone spent a great deal of his time on church affairs. In the middle of World War Two, Winston Churchill took time out when Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, died tragically early to veto the appointment of the favoured successor, George Bell, because of his political views and insist on the appointment of the much more conservative Geoffrey Fisher.
As recently as 1991, Margaret Thatcher was understood to have vetoed the church’s first choice of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, to succeed Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury, in favour of the more junior and much less well qualified George Carey, precisely because he was the weaker candidate and she wanted to weaken the role of the church in the national debate – an aim which she succeeded in carrying out. It was even rumoured that Tony Blair, on at least one occasion, rejected the first short-list of two Bishops to a large diocese. There’s no suggestion though that any of his five successors have taken interest whatsoever in these appointments.
These top church jobs were once considered to be big national jobs, positions of power and influence. But as the Church of England has seen its numbers fall, its theological incoherence increase and its focus turn increasingly inwards, the question of who becomes Bishop of what diocese or Dean of which cathedral has become less important. It is only rarely now that criticism or comment by the Archbishop make a headline. Speeches in the Lords disappear into the whirlpool of Parliamentary wind, to be noted for the pages of Hansard. Maybe a tweet or two. For the brutal fact is that Prime Ministers now take a keener interest in appointments that they perceive to matter most – for example, the chairman of the BBC, President of the Supreme Court, Chief of the Defence Staff, the boards of the National Gallery and British Museum. Who takes over in the church doesn’t sit on his or her radar. So those who worry over whether Sunak will or will not influence church appointments are wasting their time. My bet is that he will become the sixth Prime Minister to leave it to someone else while he concerns himself with the appointments that he thinks matter.