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How important is the Cabinet in British politics?

How important is the Cabinet in British politics?

The Cabinet

  • Consists of senior members of the government.
  • Each government department has a senior minister, known as a Secretary of State, who is a member of the cabinet.
  • There is a health secretary, a home secretary, a transport secretary and so on.
  • Junior ministers (those who are not secretaries of state) are not in the cabinet.
  • Some cabinet members are not heads of departments. The chief whip (those who try to convince backbench MPs to vote with the government) and the leader of the House of Commons are also cabinet members.
  • It meets once a week.

Functions of Cabinet / Constraints

  • Policy Formulation: The cabinet often sets out the government’s priorities.
  • In reality, detailed work on individual policy is carried out in smaller groups. The ban on smoking in pubs was debated in cabinet, but the actual wording of the text was drafted by the Department of Health. The details of the Health and Social Care bill were largely drawn up by Andrew Lansley’s health department.
  • Dealing with crisis: The cabinet often meets during difficult periods to present a “show of unity”. After Black Wednesday (when interest rates rocketed in 1992), the cabinet met to agree economic policy.
  • However, during times of war the prime minister often relies on small teams of experts. Blair relied on close advisers, Geoff Hoon (defence secretary) and Jack Straw (foreign secretary), during the Iraq War. Brown and Darling handled the Northern Rock crisis. Cameron convened “Cobra”, the government’s emergency response team, after the floods in Cumbria in 2016.
  • Controlling the parliamentary agenda: Ministers compete to get their legislation through Parliament. The cabinet is the forum for this debate. This was a key function of the coalition cabinet, as Liberal Democrat and Conservative members of cabinet competed to get their bills timetabled. 
  • Yet, the decision on which bills will go through parliament is also decided elsewhere. In the 2010-15 coalition, the “quad” met each week to discuss Liberal Democrat and Conservative priorities. This quad consisted only of David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander.  
  • Ratifying (approving) decisions made elsewhere: Cabinet is an “endorsing body”, approving policies formulated elsewhere (such as in small cabinet committees).
  • Some have criticised cabinet as being a “rubber stamp” for the prime minister’s policy ideas. The Big Society is David Cameron’s big idea, not the Cabinet’s.
  • Settling departmental disputes: Home secretary John Reid opposed the proposal on banning smoking in pubs. It was through the cabinet that this dispute was resolved. The decision to scrap EMA was only taken once senior Lib Dem cabinet members secured extra funding for its replacement.
  • However, Many disputes are resolved outside of the cabinet (or they are not resolved at all), such as the high-profile rivalry between Brown and Blair. Coalition policy seemed to rely on the close personal chemistry between Cameron and Clegg.
  • The Tory cabinet is so divided over the issue of Europe that it is holding a referendum rather than even attempt to agree a common approach.

Factors affecting the power of cabinet

  • The power of the prime minister / majority: Blair and Thatcher disregarded their cabinets while Major often had to consult with his. Brown appeared to take a consultative approach because of his reduced majority in the commons. Cameron has a slim majority and so must consult.
  • Prime ministerial preference: Some PMs prefer to consult (Major) while others prefer to cajole (bully). Thatcher accepted resignations instead of compromising. Heseltine resigned over Thatcher’s decision to award a helicopter contract to an American firm. Cameron is happy to delegate policy making to his ministers. For example, he allowed Eric Pickles to slash local government budgets and gave Michael Gove a free hand in setting education policy.  
  • The issue and its importance: The Iraq war was debated several times in cabinet, while funding for education was not. Brown’s scrapping of the 10p tax band rate was discussed at length in cabinet because some cabinet members threatened privately to resign.
  • Characters within cabinet: Blair had to accept an increasing number of MPs who were “Brownites” instead of “Blairites”. He could therefore no longer take the loyalty of cabinet for granted. After the 2010 election, Cameron felt need to allow moderates some say over policy – this is why he allowed Ken Clarke to be Justice Secretary.


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