The role and influence of the cabinet

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.
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Cabinet Committees

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.
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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.
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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. 
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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.
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Resolving issues

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. 
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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.
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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.
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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. 
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