The role of the Cabinet in the past
Befpre the 1960s, the British system was known as 'cabinet government' which is where:
- The cabinet represented the collective identity of the govt, through collective ministerial repsonsibility.
- The cabinet made all important domestic and foreign policy decisions.
- The cabinet also had to approve policies before they became official.
- Disputes within the govt were resolved by the cabinet.
- The PM was considered 'primus inter pares' which means 'first amongst equals.'
However, since Macmillan and Wilson, it was realised that this was changing through:
- Cabinet Committees
- Marginalisation of the cabinet.
Cabinet committees (first emerging in the 1960s), now had taken over from the full cabinet, in terms of policy and decision making:
- Cabinet committees consists of around 5 cabinet ministers.
- They meet to discuss a specific area of govt policy.
- (Decisions seen as not as important, will be made in a govt department).
- These usually need wider approval.
- Some cabinet committees can be temporary, such as for the Olympic games or a terrorist threat.
Cabinet committees have not effected the PM's control greatly because:
- The PM controls the creation of the committees.
- The PM can also sit on the committees as well as having influence over them.
- The committee system has allowed the PM to exercise more control over all areas of the political system.
- Therefore, since the 1960s, power has moved from the cabinet to the PM, due to cabinet committees.
Marginalisation of the cabinet
The cabinet has been marginalised because of important rivals to cabinet powers:
- The personal authority and power of the PM has grown over the collective power of the cabinet.
- Larger departments are seen as 'kingdoms', and have major control over their areas of policy.
- E.g. The Treasury, Home Office and Foreign Office etc.
- However, these departments must retain allegiance to the PM.
- A great deal of policy making is done in cabinet committees, which shows it is a 'network' system, rather than a single body.
- There has been a shift in policy making to the Downing Street machine.
- This includes think tanks and policy units.
- The PM will discuss issues with individual ministers, instead the cabinet as a whole.
- E.g. Blair's govt was known as 'sofa govt' and Wilson was known as 'kitchen.'
- Therefore more power has been given to the PM.
The cabinet today
Today, the cabinet:
- Performs far less functions than it did 50 years.
- However, it still meets once a week, requiring all ministers to attend.
- The cabinet is much shorter.
- It attracts little publicity.
However, the cabinet sill has 5 major functions, which include:
- Resolving disputes between ministers, that cannot be elsewhere.
- Deciding an issue that should be resolved by the whole cabinet.
- Making govt policies in times of emergencies.
- To present a united front.
- Legitimising policy proposals.
Resolving disputes between ministers
A function of the cabinet, is to resolve disputes between ministers that cannot be resolved elsewhere:
- This is where the PM, Cabinet Secretary and other advisors will bring the matter to the full cabinet.
- Under the doctrine of collective responsibility, ministers who are in conflict are forced to accept the decision.
- Disputes are commonly about public spending, where the minister finds his proposed budget is being cut, and feels that the cut should happen elsewhere.
- E.g. Iain Duncan Smith resigned as his role as Minister of Works and Pensions, as Osborne pledge in the 2016 Budget to cut disabled benefits.
In some circumstances, the PM will decide that an issue should be resolved by the full cabinet:
- This may be because the Pm has no personal interest in the issue.
- It could also be because the PM would prefer to not commit themselves to such a decision, that may cause them later embarrassment.
- This way, PMs can blame their ministers.
- E.g. Blair wanted to built the Millennium Dome in Greenwich in 1997, but people claimed it would fail and be a waste of public spending, so he took the deicison to the full cabinet.
- In addition, the PM may seek cabinet approval because they fear there will be fierce opposotion in Parliament.
- E.g. In 2005, it was decided to go aead with plans for the introduction of identity cards, which needed collective govt approval, as it would face opposition in Parliament and the public.
To approve govt policy, in times of national emerg
Another function of the cabient is to approve govt policy, especially in times of national emergency:
- This is where it is desireable for the full cabinet to approve govt policy.
- E.g. This was seen following the 9/11 terrotist attack and 7/7 attack, when the cabinet needed to deal with the terrorist threat.
To present a united front
Presenting a united front, has become an increasingly important function of the cabinet:
- This ensures that poicy is seen in the most favourable light, by the media and Parliament.
- Therefore, the cabinet has the task of making decisions presentable.
- E.g. Through collective responsiblity, cabinet ministers have a duty to publicy agree with the PM's policies.
- If they don't, it will make the cabinet and govt look disunited and corruptable.
Legitimising policy proposals
The cabinet also have to legitimise policy proposals and key decisions:
- This is where the cabinet officially approves a public policy, that has been made or accepted by the political community (governing party).
- This remains necessary for the effectiveness working at govt.