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The UK Cabinet

One of the conventions of British Government is that key decisions are taken by the Cabinet.

For over two hundred years the senior government ministers have met to discuss issues and the decisions taken were held to be a matter of collective responsibility, so that no member of the Cabinet would speak in public against these decisions. This has extended to all areas of government policy and all ministers, whether they are in the Cabinet or not.

The problem is that Cabinet doesn’t actually meet to take decisions any more. Wilson did have long Cabinet discussions to deal with the economic crisis of the mid 1970s because his Cabinet consisted of major experienced figures, Healey, Callaghan, Foot, Benn, Crosland, Williams, and he wanted to make sure that they were all signed up to the policies adopted.

Cameron and Major tried to have more discussion in Cabinet than Thatcher and Blair wanted and in recent years to expand its membership to increase diversity. Cabinet though is mainly a report from the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor Exchequer and the rubber stamping of decisions held elsewhere.

The meetings do mean that Ministers see each other and give a collegiate feel to the Government for politicians who otherwise spend their time in their Departments (Cabinet Ministers in other European countries do this by also having a weekly meal together and the Finnish Cabinet goes for a weekly sauna – probably not an idea that Mrs Thatcher would have approved of)

If the Cabinet doesn’t decide issues then who does? The British system is not Presidential and Prime Ministers cannot just rely on advisers, as the American President can, and has to reach agreement with the other major politicians in the Government.

There are two mechanisms:-

– There are a number of Cabinet Committees, for example, those on European Affairs and Social Justice, which consist of selected ministers. The Second World War produced such a huge expansion in the work of Government that these became the main vehicle for discussing issues and taking decisions. Their recommendations are formally approved by the Cabinet.

One committee is the National Security Council, set up in 2010, which discusses long term strategy but has also been ready to meet more regularly to deal with crises such as international and domestic terrorism. Another Cabinet Committee draws up the Government’s legislative programme for the coming session of Parliament.

– The Cabinet, in practice, is not just the formal weekly meeting but a system of contacts between the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers and between Ministers. These are not just actual meetings but phone and email contacts and contacts between special advisers and senior civil servants. Much has been made of Mrs Thatcher’s preference for meetings with one or two ministers and Blair’s sofa meetings as a way of by passing Cabinet, but these have always taken place (Eden preferred bilateral meetings with Ministers rather than Cabinet discussion). With Thatcher and Blair it represented a change in emphasis to depend on smaller meetings rather than the larger ones that they disliked.