The Cabinet

The UK Cabinet

The following Links to 2011 3 part BBC series on Whitehall provide very useful information on the Cabinet Office, the Number 10 Office and the relationships between the Cabinet and the Civil Service

The Secret World of Whitehall [1] Michael Cockerel l1[ BBC First broadcast March 2011]

The Secret World of Whitehall Michael Cockerell ]2] [BBC First broadcast March 2011]

The Secret World of Whitehall Michael Cockerell [3] [BBC First broadcast March 2011]

This link will take you to another 3 Part BBC Series by Michael Cockerell on the Great Offices of State and to a series on the work of Cabinet ministers and of the Prime Minister. Links to the individual programmes in the Michael Cockerell Series are provided below.

The Dark Department [The Home Office]

The Palace of Dreams [The Foreign Office]

The Secret Treasury [The Treasury]

Please note that students will also need information on the operation of the Cabinet within the  Coalition Government .Perhaps the most important issue to be considered here is the development of the so-called Quad , Click here for an article from PoliticsHome  [2015] and  Click here for "In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government , a podcast on the Coalition Government by Matthew D’Ancona. Click here for a critical assessment of the Quad by Will Hutton [Observer 2021]

The following links detailed provide information on the Cabinet reshuffle of September 4th 2012

Click here for an Observer Editorial and here for an article by Andrew Rawnsley on David Cameron and the Cabinet reshuffle September 9th

Click here for BBC coverage of Cabinet reshuffle September 4th

Click here for a Guardian interactive graphic for the ideological impact of the Cabinet Reshuffle September 4th

Click here for Independent article on Cabinet reshuffle with links to further Independent coverage September 4th

Click here for Daily Telegraph article on Cabinet reshuffle  with links to further detailed Daily Telegraph coverage September 4th

Click here for a Guardian guide to Cabinet reshuffles and here for some data on the composition of the Cabinet pre-reshuffle and here  and here  and here  and here and here for  useful Guardian articles September 3rd-4th

Very importantly follow these links for information on the new Conservative Cabinet formed in the aftermath of the Conservative victory in the UK General Election of May 7th 2015

Guardian coverage : OneTwo; ThreeFourFive

BBC Coverage: One ; Two;

Daily Telegraph Coverage One;  Two;   Three

Also see below for information on the new Conservative Cabinet

Click here for a document on Individual Ministerial Responsibility and Collective Cabinet Responsibility.

Via the final link you will find information on all recent Cabinet personnel changes.

The modern UK Cabinet has  typically contained 20-23 Ministers chosen  by the PM mainly  from the Commons but to a much lesser extent from the Lords as heads [and occasionally as deputies as in the case of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury] of the major departments of state or as Ministers without Portfolio. Cabinet and non –Cabinet Ministers are bound but to a variable extent by the conventions of Collective Cabinet Responsibility and Individual Ministerial Responsibility.

Cabinet meetings have typically occurred once or twice per week in the post war period and lasted for 1-2 hours although during the Blair Premiership Cabinet meetings were typically shorter. Cabinet may meet more often in difficult political situations such as during war time or in response to events such as the 2001 foot and mouth crisis. Meetings are chaired by the PM and agendas are determined by the PM in consultation with the Cabinet Secretary and the Leader of the House of Commons whose role as the government’s parliamentary business manager is important in this respect.  The PM will summarise the conclusions of Cabinet discussion; votes are rarely taken since the PM will wish to weigh as well as count individual votes and in any case not wish to draw attention to cabinet disunity; and Cabinet minutes are drafted by the Cabinet Secretary and cleared by the PM. [As will be discussed later it may be that the PM may be able to control the activities of Cabinet in several ways.]

The constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot suggested in The English Constitution [1867] that whereas Parliament was increasingly joining the Monarchy as part of the “dignified Constitution” the Cabinet was the most significant element of the “efficient Constitution and it has been widely claimed that a system of Cabinet government [in which the PM could be regarded as “Primus inter pares” or “first among equals “] was still in operation during the first half of the C20th. It was of course recognised that as a result of the increased scope and complexity of government decision making, detailed discussion of specific government policies was more likely to occur in small Cabinet committees rather than in the full Cabinet itself whose size made it unsuitable for such work but the full Cabinet did still play a significant central role in the UK system of government.

Thus it is claimed that up to the 1950s full Cabinet would still discuss important government policies;  such discussion would provide Cabinet ministers with information on all elements of government policy; the PM would seek full Cabinet endorsement of important government policies full Cabinet would often routinely endorse decisions already taken in cabinet committees but might also sometimes overturn them; when cabinet committees could not resolve inter-departmental disputes full Cabinet would do so thereby playing an important coordinating role; and government unity would be enhanced as  a result of the operation of the convention of Collective Cabinet responsibility [to be discussed later].

However it has also been argued that in the supposed era of Cabinet government, full Cabinet did not necessarily fulfil the above functions effectively and that in any case Cabinet government may have been increasingly replaced by Prime Ministerial government from the 1960s onwards although, as we shall see this is a matter of some controversy.

Several factors may contribute to the ineffectiveness of full Cabinet as decision making body.

  • Cabinet meetings are occurring less often and becoming shorter so that effective discussion of government policy is increasingly unlikely.
  • Full Cabinet meeting, attended by about 30 people including officials are too large to permit detailed discussion of policy.
  • Ministers’ career prospects depend mainly on their perceived effectiveness as heads of government departments and they may therefore attempt to defend their own departmental interests when this conflicts with the interests of other government departments and perhaps with overall government strategy. Ministers are particularly concerned to try to protect their departmental spending budgets.
  • Cabinet ministers focus primarily on the detailed operation of their own departments and may have neither the ability, the knowledge, the interest nor the time to take more than a cursory interest in full Cabinet discussions unrelated to their own departmental interests. As the late Barbara Castle [an intelligent, energetic Labour Cabinet Minister] once said, “How does one solve the problem of finding time to equip oneself to be a fully effective member of Cabinet? I work 16-17 hours a day and there is still not enough time.”

These possibilities that  full Cabinet may be unable to coordinate government policy effectively led some analysts to suggest that the UK had “Departmental Government “ rather than Cabinet Government  or indeed that UK government could be described in terms of a “Polo Mint theory of Government in which the Centre was far to weak to function effectively.

However these difficulties have been well understood and various procedures have been adopted in the attempt to improve the coordination of government policy.

  • The Existence of Cabinet committees and of the Cabinet Office should in principle improve overall coordination.
  • One of the key functions of the Treasury is to coordinate government expenditure plans.
  • Prime Ministers have sometimes used smaller Inner Cabinets or more informal groups of about 3-5 senior Ministers in attempts to improve coordination.
  • Prime Ministers have increased the availability of resources available to themselves in the Number 10 Office as a means of improving overall coordination.

From the 1960s onwards it came to be argued increasingly that Cabinet Government was being replaced by Prime Ministerial Government Thus Prime Ministers might nowadays be said to be much more than Primus inter pares for several reasons.

  • They are party leaders.
  • They appoint and dismiss ministers.
  • They determine the chairmanship and membership of Cabinet Committees.
  • They appoint new members of the House of Lords, senior civil servants, judges, bishops and members of various government commissions.
  • They chair the Cabinet and control the Cabinet agenda.
  • They have the opportunity to amass considerable political popularity with the electorate through the skilled use of the mass media.
  • They appear on the international stage as world leaders
  • Their freedom from departmental responsibilities enables them to intervene over the full range of government policy

However there are also constraints on the extent of each of these prime ministerial powers.

  • They do not have full control over their parties: there is often a possibility of backbench revolts.
  • Their abilities to appoint Cabinet Ministers are constrained by the availability of talent and career interest, by the need for an ideologically balanced Cabinet, by the fact that certain key politicians cannot reasonably be excluded. Sacking Ministers may cause resentment and/or create an impression of government disunity.
  • The convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility requires government to act collectively…needs further discussion.
  • Public visibility in the mass media is a two edged sword: Prime Ministers may be blamed when things go wrong and/or accused of excessive “spin.”
  • Appearances on the “world Stage” may draw attention to how little is often achieved at such meetings.
  • Prime Ministers may lack the expertise and advice necessary to intervene effectively in the complex world of departmental policy making.
  • They may lack the time to involve themselves in all issues but they may involve themselves especially in several key issues.

Further Considerations to be covered in detail in a subsequent document


The debate surrounding Prime Ministerial power has ebbed and flowed over the last 50 years. It was alleged in the 1960s that Prime Ministerial power was on the increase and that this tendency increased further during the Premiership of Mrs Thatcher. However the Thatcher years demonstrated also that Prime Ministerial Power varied according to a range of political circumstances…her powers increased especially after the 1983 General Election victory but began to decline slowly at first perhaps in 1986 but rapidly from 1988 onwards.  It is has been claimed that John Major’s Premiership resulted in the reassertion of Cabinet Government but this was followed by the strong Premiership of Tony Blair which itself was gradually weakened for various reasons. After a brief “honeymoon” Gordon Brown’s opinion poll ratings deteriorated substantially and he faced several serious challenges to his leadership before being obliged to resign following the General Election of 2010. I hope to provide further details on these issues and on the operation of the Cabinet under the Premiership of David Cameron in the future.

We also have to consider theories of Presidential Government and the nature of the so-called Core Executive.