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In the politics of the United Kingdom, the Cabinet is the collective decision-making body of Her Majesty's Government, composed of the Prime Minister and some 22 Cabinet Ministers, the most senior of government ministers.

H.M. Ministers, and especially Cabinet Ministers, are selected primarily from the elected members of House of Commonsmarker, but also from the House of Lordsmarker, by the Prime Minister. (Only representatives and not public officers are directly elected in the UK) Cabinet Ministers are heads of government departments, mostly with the office of "Secretary of State for [Defence, or the relevant function]". The collective co-ordinating function of the Cabinet is reinforced by the statutory position that all the Secretaries of State jointly hold the same office, and can exercise the same powers.

The Cabinet is the ultimate decision-making body of the executive within the United Kingdom system of government in traditional constitutional theory. This interpretation was originally put across in the work of nineteenth century constitutionalists such as Walter Bagehot (who described the Cabinet as the 'efficient secret' of the British political system in his book The English Constitution). The political and decision-making authority of the cabinet has been gradually reduced over the last several decades, with some claiming its role has been usurped by a "Prime Ministerial" (i.e. more "presidential") government.

The Cabinet is technically the executive committee of Her Majesty's Privy Council, a historic body which has legislative, judicial and executive functions, and whose large membership includes members of the Opposition. Its decisions are generally implemented either under the existing powers of individual government departments, or by Orders-in-Council.


Until at least the sixteenth century, individual Officers of State had separate property, powers and responsibilities granted with their separate offices by Royal Command, and the Crown and the Privy Council constituted the only co-ordinating authorities. In England, phrases such as "cabinet counsel", meaning advice given in private, in a cabinet in the sense of a small room, to the monarch, occur from the late 16th century, and, given the non-standardised spelling of the day, it is often hard to distinguish whether "council" or "counsel" is meant. The OED credits Francis Bacon in his Essays (1605) with the first use of "Cabinet council", where it is described as a foreign habit, of which he disapproves: "For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease". Charles I began a formal "Cabinet Council" from his accession in 1625, as his Privy Council, or "private council", was evidently not private enough, and the first recorded use of "cabinet" by itself for such a body comes from 1644, and is again hostile and associates the term with dubious foreign practises. The process has repeated itself in recent times, as Prime Ministers have felt the need to have a Kitchen Cabinet.

Since the reign of King George I the Cabinet has been the principal executive group of British government. Both he and George II made use of the system, as both were non-native English speakers, unfamiliar with Britishmarker politics, and thus relied heavily on selected groups of advisers. The term "minister" came into being since the royal officers "ministered" to the sovereign. The name and institution have been adopted by most English-speaking countries, and the Council of Ministers or similar bodies of other countries are often informally referred to as cabinets.

The modern Cabinet system was set up by Prime Minister David Lloyd George during his premiership of 1916–22, with a Cabinet Officemarker and Secretariat, committee structures, unpublished Minutes, and a clearer relationship with departmental Cabinet Ministers. (The formal procedures, practice and proceedings of the Cabinet remain largely unpublished, if not secret.)

This development grew out of the exigencies of the First World War, where faster and better co-ordinated decisions across Government were seen as crucial part of the war effort. Lloyd George himself once said, "War is too important to be left to the generals." . Decisions on mass conscription, co-ordination worldwide with other governments across international theatres, and armament production tied into a general war strategy that could be developed and overseen from an inner "War Cabinet". The country went through successive crises after the war: the 1922–1926 General Strike; the Great Depression of 1929–32; the rise of communist Bolshevism after 1917 and Fascism after 1922; the Spanish Civil War 1936 onwards; the invasion of Abyssiniamarker 1936; the League of Nations Crisis which followed; and the re-armament and resurgence of Germany from 1933, leading into another World War. All these demanded a highly organised and centralised Government based around the Cabinet.

This centralisation inevitably enhanced the power of the Prime Minister, who moved from being the primus inter pares of the Asquith Cabinets of 1906 onwards, with a glittering set of huge individual talents leading powerful departments, to the dominating figures of Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.


Cabinet Ministers, like all Ministers, are appointed and may be dismissed by the monarch, on the advice of Prime Minister. The allocation and transfer of responsibilities between ministers and departments is also generally at his discretion. The Cabinet has always been led by the Prime Minister, whose unpaid office was traditionally described as merely primus inter pares (first among equals) but today is clearly the preeminent head of government, with the power to appoint and dismisses Cabinet ministers and sets the Cabinet's agenda. The extent to which the Government is collegial presumably varies with political conditions and individual personalities.

Any change to the composition of the Cabinet involving more than one appointment is customarily referred to as a reshuffle; a routine reshuffle frequently occurs in the summer. The total number of ministers allowed to be paid as "Cabinet ministers" is limited by statute (Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975), and this has caused successive Prime Ministers problems, and accounts for some of the unusual regular attendees at Cabinet, who are not paid as "Cabinet ministers". The number, currently 22, often fluctuates between 21 and 24.

The Cabinet Secretary is neither a Secretary of State or other minister, nor a member of the Cabinet, but is the professional Head of Her Majesty's Civil Service. (The Cabinet Secretaries of the devolved Scottish Government are Scottish Ministers, unrelated to the UK Cabinet).

In formal constitutional terms, the Cabinet is a committee of the Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council. All Cabinet members are created Privy Councillors on appointment (if they are not already Privy Councillors). MPs in the Cabinet therefore use the style "The Right Honourable"; Privy Councillors in the House of Lords place the letters "PC" after their names to distinguish themselves, since all peers are "The Right Honourable" or hold a higher style as of right.

Recently the Cabinet has been made up almost entirely of members of the House of Commonsmarker. The Leader of the House of Lords is necessarily a member of the House of Lordsmarker, but otherwise it is now rare for a peer to sit in the Cabinet. The Lord Chancellor was, until recently, always a member of the House of Lords, however current and future post holders will be a members of the House of Commons. Until the re-appointment to the cabinet of Lord Mandelson on 3 October 2008, the former Leader of the Lords, Lady Amos, was the last peer to sit in any other Cabinet post, as Secretary of State for International Development from May to October 2003. Before then, the last Secretary of State for a major department drawn from the Lords was Lord Young of Graffham, serving between 1985 and 1989 as Secretary of State for Employment until 1987 and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry until 1989. Interestingly, the number of junior ministers who are peers has increased since 1997.

Occasionally cabinet members are selected from outside the Houses of Parliament and if necessary granted a peerage. Harold Wilson appointed Frank Cousins and Patrick Gordon Walker to the 1964 cabinet despite not being MPs at the time. On 3 October 2008 Peter Mandelson, at the time of appointment not a member of either House, became Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and was immediately elevated to a Life Peerage.

It should be noted that as well as the Cabinet Ministers, there are some 100 junior members of the Government, including Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State; and unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries are in practice apprentice ministers on the payroll vote. All these Members of Parliament have a vested interest in supporting the Government. Some junior ministers below Cabinet level may be invited to Cabinet meetings as a matter of course. The Attorney General for England and Wales (currently Patricia Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthal), together with the chair of the governing political party, are customarily included, and other members of the Government can be invited at the Prime Minister's discretion, either regularly or ad-hoc.

In recent years, more non-members of Her Majesty's Government 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, and Jonathan Powell the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister under Tony Blair, with a distinctly separate role from the Cabinet Secretary/Head of the Civil Service.

Meetings of the Cabinet

The Cabinet meets on a regular basis, usually weekly on a Tuesday morning notionally to discuss the most important issues of government policy, and to make decisions. For a long period of time, Cabinet met on a Thursday, and it was only after the appointment of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister that the meeting day was switched to Tuesday. The length of meetings varies according to the style of the Prime Minister and political conditions, but today meetings can be as little as 30 minutes in length, which suggests announcement or ratification of decisions taken in committee, by informal groups, or in bi-lateral discussions between the Prime Minister and individual colleagues, with discussion in Cabinet itself very limited. The Prime Minister normally has a weekly audience with The Queen thereafter.

The Cabinet has numerous sub-committees which focus on 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 ("ad hoc 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 Officemarker. Consequent Orders-in-Council are normally made by the Queen-in-Council with a quorum of the Privy Council, which meets monthly or ad-hoc.

Most Prime Ministers have had 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 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.

Parliamentary accountability

There are two key constitutional conventions regarding the accountability of cabinet ministers to the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker, cabinet collective responsibility, and individual ministerial responsibility.

These are derived from the fact the members of the cabinet are Members of Parliament, and therefore accountable to the House of which they are a member. The Queen will only appoint a Prime Minister whose Government can command the support of the House of Commons, which alone can grant supply to a Government by authorising taxes; and the House of Commons expects all ministers to be personally accountable to Parliament. In practice, Cabinet Ministers will usually have a junior minister to represent their department in the other House.

Cabinet collective responsibility means that members of the cabinet make major decisions collectively, and are therefore collectively responsible for the consequences of these decisions. Therefore, no minister may speak against government decisions, and if a vote of no confidence is passed in Parliament, every minister and government official drawn from Parliament is expected to resign from the executive. So, logically, cabinet ministers who disagree with major decisions are expected to resign as, to take a recent example, Robin Cook did over the decision to attack Iraqmarker in 2003.

Individual ministerial responsibility is the convention that in their capacity as head of department, a minister is personally responsible for the actions and failings of their department. Under circumstances of gross failure in their department, a minister is expected to resign,(and may readily be forced to do so by the Prime Minister), while their civil servants remain permanent and anonymous. Perhaps surprisingly, this is relatively rare in practice, perhaps because administrative failure is of less interest to populist elements of the media than personal scandal, 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, 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 define strictly, 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 luridly revealed that David Mellor had an extramarital affair) they very often resign. This often follows a short period of intense media and opposition pressure for them to do so. In general, despite numerous scandals, in Britain cases of serious corruption (e.g. acceptance of bribes) are relatively rare in comparison with many other democracies. One reason is the strength of the whip system, political parties and the civil service, in comparison to individual politicians. This means MPs and ministers have little capacity to be influenced by improper pressure.

Parliamentary Questions can be tabled for Ministers in either house of Parliament (a process called interpellation in political science, or PQs in practice), either for written or oral reply. These may be "planted" questions for the advantage of the Government, or antagonistic questions from the Opposition, or may genuinely seek information. Cabinet ministers must respond, either themselves or through a deputy, although the answers do not always fully answer the question. 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 or a House may call for their resignation, or formally resolve to reduce their salary by a nominal amount), 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 the Queen will seek to restore confidence either by a dissolution of Parliament and the election of a new one, or by the acceptance of the resignation of her entire government.

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 the party line)
  • the "payroll vote" (a term which refers to the fact that members of parliament of the governing majority party will wish to be promoted to an executive position, and then be on the government's payroll).
  • Collective Ministerial Responsibility requires members of the government to vote with the government on whipped votes, or else resign their position.
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.

In contemporary times, the nature of the cabinet has been criticised by some, largely because recently Prime Ministers are perceived as acting in a "presidential" manner. Such an accusation was made at Tony Blair as he was believed to have refrained from using the Cabinet as a collective decision-making body. These actions caused concern as it contravened the convention of the PM being "first among equals". In this sense, he was acting like a US President, who (unlike the British PM) is not constitutionally bound to make decisions collectively with a cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was also noted as being "presidential", in the capacity that she "forced" her own viewpoints onto her Cabinet. However the power that a Prime Minister has over his or her Cabinet colleagues is directly proportional to the amount of support that they have with their political parties and this is often related to whether the party considers them to be an electoral asset or liability. Further when a party is divided into factions a Prime Minister may be forced to include other powerful party members in the Cabinet for party political cohesion.

The Cabinet's formal relationship with Parliament, or at least the Prime Minister's hopes for it, are set out in the Ministerial Code.

Current cabinet

Following his appointment as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown announced his first Cabinet on 28 June 2007. The latest reshuffle was on 5 June 2009.

Shadow Cabinet

The Official Opposition (the party with the second largest number of elected members of Parliament, currently the Conservative Party) is headed by a similar group called the Shadow Cabinet.

The parliamentary leadership of other opposition parties are conventionally known as their Frontbench Team, but in recent years the Liberal Democrat Party, currently the third-largest party in Parliament, have started to also use the term Shadow Cabinet.

The Scottish Cabinet

Scottish Cabinet Secretaries are senior Scottish Ministers, not civil servants, and are only remotely connected with the UK Cabinet by analogy. Scottish Ministers under s47 Scotland Act 1998 are the members of the Scottish Executive (under s44 of the Act), or devolved Scottish Government as it is commonly known. Although Scottish Ministers are appointed with the Approval of the Queen and commonly appointed to the Privy Council, they are not regarded as Ministers of the Crown, let alone members of the UK Cabinet.

The Welsh Cabinet

Welsh Cabinet is the government of the National Assembly of Walesand the ministers are appointed by the queen, and sometimes to the Privy Council, they are not regarded as Ministers of the Crown, let alone members of the UK cabinet.

See also


  1. s3 Ministers of the Crown Act 1975
  2. Foley, Michael, 2000 - The British Presidency pp13–14 via Google Books
  3. OED Cabinet
  4. Bacon, Essay "On Counsel"
  5. Liberal Democrats - Shadow Cabinet

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