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(c) Assess the current importance of the cabinet (25 marks)
The British cabinet used to be the centre of the policymaking process, but this is no longer true.
Many of its functions have been taken over by other bodies, especially the prime minister. It still has
some important functions, but it also has several limitations. An overall assessment of its importance
is that it is steadily becoming weaker. However, the advent of coalition government has given a new
boost to the cabinet. This essay will explain these points.
The cabinet has one really important role. This is to consider proposals that have been made by the
prime minister, or cabinet committees or policy units or the governing party, and to give them
legitimacy. Once the cabinet has approved a policy, it becomes the official policy of the government
and all ministers have to support it. This does not mean it is actually making policy, but only that it is
approving policy. This is an important role but arguably not a central one.
It does have some other functions which are important. It settles interministerial disputes, for
example over public expenditure, it determines how the government is going to present its policies to
the public, the media and Parliament, and it does, from time to time, make decisions in a crisis. So,
for example, Brown had to consult cabinet about what measures to take to deal with the credit
Mainly since the days of Blair, the cabinet only meets once a week, often for less than an hour. This
is a good indication of its lack of importance. Really, it can be said that the prime minister is at the
centre of policy making. The prime minister can dominate the cabinet through patronage and control
of its agenda.
The coalition government has changed the role of the cabinet again and it can be said that it is now
more important. The problem is that there are two parties in government and sometimes they
disagree over policy, for example over NHS reform or tuition fees. The prime minister and Nick
Clegg try to solve the differences, but if they cannot, they have to go to cabinet for it to be thrashed
out there. So cabinet has a new, powerful role, but this is likely to end when coalition ends.
How are we to assess the overall importance of the cabinet today? Leaving coalition aside, it has
largely been replaced by primeministerial government, supported by a few senior ministers, advisers
and policy units etc. David Cameron is also keen on leaving policy making to his individual ministers.
The cabinet is still important, but it is no longer at the centre.