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Cabinet of the United Kingdom

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Politics of the United Kingdom

In the Politics of the United Kingdom, the Cabinet is a formal body comprised of government officials chosen by the Prime Minister. Most members are the most senior government ministers, mainly heads of government departments with the title "Secretary of State". Formal members of the cabinet are drawn exclusively from either house of Parliament. In traditional constitutional theory, in the British system of government, the Cabinet is the key formal decision making body of the executive. This interpretation was originally put across in the work of ninteenth century constitutionalists such as Walter Bagehot, and the extent to which it is a decision maker today is clearly reduced, with some claiming its role has been usurped by 'Prime-Ministerial Government', or more recently and controversially, a 'Presidential' Prime Minister.

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Composition

The Prime Minister uses royal prerogative powers of patronage to appoint and dismiss members of the cabinet. Thus the Prime Minister requires the formal approval of the monarch for any appointment to the Cabinet. Today, the monarch's approval is merely token, and has never been denied in recent history. Changing the membership is called a reshuffle. The cabinet has always been led by the Prime Minister, although his role is traditionally described as primus inter pares — first among equals. The extent to which the Prime Minister is collegial depends on political conditions and individual style. The Prime Minister individually and through the cabinet secretary sets the agenda for cabinet meetings. In formal constitutional terms, the Cabinet is a committee of the Privy Council; all Cabinet members are Privy Councillors and therefore use the style "The Right Honourable".

In recent history, the composition of the cabinet has been made up overwhelmingly of members of the House of Commons, with few members of the Lords. Today, apart from the Lord Chancellor, and Leader of the House of Lords, offices that are alway filled by a member of the House of Lords, no cabinet minister is drawn from the Lords. The last position to do so was the Secretary of State for International Development, filled by Valerie Ann Amos, Baroness Amos in 2003. The last Secretary of State of a major department drawing from the Lords was Lord Carrington, serving between 1979 and 1982 as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

In recent years, non-members of Parliament have been permitted by the Prime Minister to attend cabinet meetings on a regular basis, notably Alastair Campbell in his capacity as Director of Communications and Strategy between 1997 and 2003.

Meetings of the Cabinet

The Cabinet meets on a regular basis, usually weekly on a Thursday morning, notionally to discuss the most important issues of government policy, and to make decisions. The length of meetings vary according to the style of the Prime Minister and political conditions, but today meetings can be as little as 30 minutes.

The Cabinet has numerous sub-committees which focus particular policy areas, particularly ones which cut across several ministerial responsibilities, and therefore need coordination. These may be permanent committees or set up for a short duration to look at particular issues ("adhoc committees"). Junior Ministers are also often members of these committees, in addition to Secretaries of State. The transaction of government business through meetings of the Cabinet and its many committees is administered by a small secretariat within the Cabinet Office.

In practice, and increasingly in recent years, weekly meetings of the full Cabinet have tended to be more concerned with the exchange of information and general discussion of day to day political issues; with major decisions being taken by Cabinet Committees or in informal groups, often bi-laterals between the Prime Minister and an individual minister. Many Prime Ministers have in effect a so-called "kitchen cabinet" consisting of their own trusted advisers who may be Cabinet members but are often trusted personal advisers on their own staff. In recent governments (generally from Margaret Thatcher), and especially in that of Tony Blair, it has been reported that many, or even all major decisions have been said to be made before cabinet meetings. This suggestion has been made by former ministers such as Clare Short and Chris Smith, in the media, and was made clear in the Butler Review, where Blair's style of "sofa government" was censured.

Relationship with Parliament

Two key constitutional conventions regarding the accountability of the cabinet to Parliament exist, collective cabinet responsilibility and individual ministerial responsibility. These are derived from the fact the members of the cabinet are members of Parliament, and therefore accountable to it, because Parliament is sovereign. Cabinet collective responsibility means that members of the cabinet make decisions collectively, and are therefore responsible for the consquences of these decisions collectively. Therefore, when a vote of no confidence is passed in Parliament, every minister and government official drawn from Parliament automatically resign in their role as the executive, the entire executive is dismissed. So logically, cabinet ministers that disagree with major decisions are expected to resign, as to take a recent example, Robin Cook did over the decision to attack Iraq in 2003.

Individual ministerial responsibility is the convention that in their capacity as head of department, a minister is responsible for the actions, and therefore the failings too of their department. Since the civil service is permanent and anoymous, under circumstances of gross incompetance in their department, a minister 'must' resign. Perhaps surprisingly, this is relatively rare in practice, perhaps because, whilst many would consider incompetence more harmful than personal scandal, it is of less interest to more populist elements of the media, and less susceptible to unequivocal proof. The closest example in recent years is perhaps Estelle Morris who resigned as Secretary of State for Education and Skills in 2002 of her own volition (following severe problems and inaccuracies in the marking of A-level exams). The circumstances under which this convention is followed are of course not possible to strictly define, and depend on many other factors. If a minister's reputation is seen to be tarnished by a personal scandal (for example when it was revealed that David Mellor had an extra-marital affair) they very often resign, often as the result of a short period of intense media and opposition pressure for them to do so. In general, despite numerous scandals, cases of serious corruption (e.g. acceptance of bribes) are relatively rare in Britain in comparison with many other democracies. One reason is because of the strength of the whip system and political parties in comparison to individual politicans means MPs and ministers have little capacity to be influenced by external groups offering money.

Questions can be tabled for Cabinet ministers in either houses of Parliament (a process called interpellation in political science), which can either be for written or oral reply. Cabinet ministers must answer them, either themselves or through a deputy. Written answers, which are usually more specific and detailed than oral questions are usually written by a civil servant. Answers to written and oral questions are published in Hansard. Parliament cannot dismiss individual ministers (though members may of course call for their resignation) but the House of Commons is able to determine the fate of the entire Government. If a vote of no confidence in the Government passes, then confidence must be restored either by a dissolution of Parliament and the election of a new one, or by the resignation of the Government collectively.

In the United Kingdom's parliamentary system, the executive is not separate from the legislature, since Cabinet members are drawn from Parliament. Moreover the executive tends to dominate the legislature for several reasons:

  • the first-past-the-post voting system (which tends to give a large majority to the governing party)
  • the power of the Government Whips (whose role is to ensure party members vote in accordance with an agreed line)
  • the "payroll vote" (a term which refers to the fact that members of the governing party who are on the government payroll (e.g. as junior ministers) would be dismissed if they voted against the government).

The combined effect of the Prime Minister's ability to control cabinet by circumventing effective discussion in Cabinet and the executive's ability to dominate parliamentary proceedings places the British Prime Minister in a position of great power that has been likened to an elective dictatorship (a phrase coined by Lord Hailsham in 1976). The relative impotence of Parliament to hold the Government of the day to account is often cited by the UK media as a justification for the vigour with which they question and challenge the Government.

A 'presidential' Prime Minister?

In contemporary times, the nature of the cabinet has been criticised by some, largely because several Prime Ministers are perceived as acting in a 'presidential' manner. Such an accusation has been made at Tony Blair (the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) as he is believed to refrain from using the Cabinet as a collective decision making body. These actions have caused concern as it contravenes the convention of the PM being 'first among equals'. In this sense, he is acting like a US President, who (unlike the British PM) is not constitutionally bound to collectively make decisions with his cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was also noted as being 'presidential', in the capacity that she 'forced' her own viewpoints onto her cabinet.

A solution cited to combat the emergence of presidential Prime Ministers is the use of select committees to question the PM's actions. However, in comparison to the constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances that exist in countries such as the United States, this is insignificant, and select committee is drawn from the same legislature as the executive, and has only limited scrutiny of the executive. It also should be noted that British Prime Ministers can be "presidential" since the powers, responsibilites and duties of the British Prime Minister are largely convention. They are not codified or written into one single document, as is often the case with heads of government in other countries.

Shadow Cabinet

The official opposition party (the party with the second largest number of elected members of Parliament) is headed by a similar group called the Shadow Cabinet (the Conservative Party is the current official opposition). In recent years the third largest party (currently the Liberal Democrat Party) has also referred to its key figures as a Shadow Cabinet.

Current Cabinet

As of May 6 2005, the Cabinet consists of the following:

Portfolio Minister
Prime Minister
First Lord of the Treasury
Minister for the Civil Service
Tony Blair
Deputy Prime Minister
First Secretary of State
John Prescott
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Second Lord of the Treasury
Gordon Brown
Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
Lord Chancellor
The Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell
Secretary of State for Defence John Reid
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett
Secretary of State for Education and Skills Ruth Kelly
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jack Straw
Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt
Secretary of State for the Home Department Charles Clarke
Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Secretary of State for Wales
Peter Hain
Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Alan Johnson
Secretary of State for Scotland
Secretary of State for Transport
Alistair Darling
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions David Blunkett
Leader of the House of Commons
Lord Privy Seal
Geoff Hoon
Leader of the House of Lords
Lord President of the Council
The Baroness Amos
Minister of State for Communities and Local Government David Miliband
Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury
Chief Whip
Hilary Armstrong
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Des Browne
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Minister for the Cabinet Office
John Hutton
Minister without Portfolio
Party Chair
Ian McCartney
In a controversial reshuffle on 12 June 2003 it was announced that the government intended to abolish the ancient office of Lord Chancellor and create a new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. Cabinet responsibility for Scotland and Wales was given to Alistair Darling and Peter Hain respectively, who have other responsibilities within the Cabinet. Although not the formal head of their departments, they will be referred to as Secretaries of State when acting in this capacity. The office of Lord Chancellor was not abolished and is instead reformed under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The Lord Chancellor's Department has been renamed to the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Lord Chancellor will hold the office of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs too.

See also: cabinet (government), Departments of the United Kingdom Government, List of British ministries

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