In traditional constitutional theory, in the United Kingdom system of government, the Cabinet is the key formal decision-making body of the executive. This interpretation was originally put across in the work of nineteenth century constitutionalists such as Walter Bagehot (who described the Cabinet as the 'efficient secret' of the British political system in his book The English Constitution). The political and decision-making authority of the cabinet has been gradually reduced over the last several decades, with some claiming its role has been usurped by a "Prime-Ministerial" (i.e. more "presidential") government.
Originally, the Cabinet technically served as a sub-committee to the Privy Council. However, the modern Cabinet system was set up by Prime Minister David Lloyd George during his premiership of 1916-22, with a Cabinet Office and Secretariat, committee structures, Minutes, and a clearer relationship with departmental Cabinet Ministers. This development grew out of the exigencies of the First World War, where faster and better co-ordinated decisions across Government were seen as crucial part of the war effort. Lloyd George himself once said, "War is too important to be left to the generals."
Decisions on mass conscription, co-ordination worldwide with other governments across international theatres, armament production tied into a general war strategy that could be developed and overseen from an inner "War Cabinet", 10 Downing Street, are all clear elements retained today. As the country went through successive crises after the 1922-1926 General Strike, the Great Depression of 1929-32; the rise of communist Bolshevism after 1917 and Fascism after 1922; the Spanish Civil War 1936 onwards; the invasion of Abyssinia 1936; the League of Nations Crisis which followed; the re-armament and resurgence of Germany from 1933, plus the lead into another World War - all demanded a highly organised and centralised Government based around the Cabinet.
This centralisation inevitably enhanced the power of the Prime Minister, who moved from being the primus inter pares of the Asquith Cabinets of 1906 onwards, with a glittering set of huge individual talents leading powerful departments, to the dominating figures of Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.
Since the reign of King George I the Cabinet has been the principal executive group of British government. Both he and George II made use of the system, as both were non-native English speakers, unfamiliar with British politics, and thus relied heavily on groups of advisers. The name and institution have been adopted by most English-speaking countries, and the Council of Ministers or similar bodies of other countries are often informally referred to as cabinets.
The term "minister" came into being since the English sovereign's ministers "ministered" the will of the king. In this period, the English monarch was an absolute monarch, and as such directly exercised all of the executive powers of the realm.
Any change to the composition of the Cabinet involving more than one appointment is customarily referred to as a reshuffle. The total number of ministers allowed to be paid as "Cabinet ministers" (22) is governed by statute ( Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975), and this has caused successive Prime Ministers problems, and accounts for some of the unusual regular attendees at Cabinet, who are not paid as "Cabinet ministers". The numbers often fluctuate between 21 and 24.
The Cabinet has always been led by the Prime Minister, although the role of the Prime Minister is traditionally described as primus inter pares, first among equals, though clearly this is a nominal status rather than a reality—after all, it is the Prime Minister alone who appoints/dismisses Cabinet Ministers and sets the agenda for Cabinet individually and through the Cabinet Secretary. The extent to which the Prime Minister is collegial depends on political conditions and individual personalities.
In formal constitutional terms, the Cabinet is a committee of the Privy Council. All Cabinet members are created Privy Councillors on appointment and therefore use the style "The Right Honourable". As members of the House of Lords are "The Right Honourable" or hold a higher style as of right, Privy Councillors in the Lords place the letters "PC" after their names to distinguish themselves.
Recent custom has been that the composition of the Cabinet has been made up almost entirely of members of the House of Commons. The office of Leader of the House of Lords is a member of the House of Lords, but apart from this one post it is now rare for a peer to sit in the Cabinet. The role of Lord Chancellor was, until recently, always occupied by a member of the House of Lords, however since the creation of the office of Lord Speaker this is no longer necessary and the current post holder is Jack Straw, a member of the House of Commons. Until the re-appointment to the cabinet of Peter Mandelson on 3rd October 2008, in anticipation of being granted a life peerage, the former Leader of the Lords, Lady Amos, was the last peer to sit in any other Cabinet post, as Secretary of State for International Development from May to October 2003. Until Mandelson, the last Secretary of State for a major department drawn from the Lords was Lord Young of Graffham, serving between 1985 and 1989 as Secretary of State for Employment until 1987 and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry until 1989. Interestingly, the number of junior ministers who are peers has increased since 1997, though being a peer can be a block to Cabinet-advancement.
Occasionally cabinet members have been selected from outside the Houses of Parliament. Frank Cousins and Patrick Gordon Walker were appointed to the 1964 Harold Wilson cabinet despite not being MPs at the time. On 3rd October 2008 Peter Mandelson, at the time of appointment not a member of either House, became Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
A small number of other ministers below Secretary of State level may also be included in Cabinet meetings as a matter of course. The Attorney General (currently Baroness Scotland), together with the chair of the governing parliamentary party, are customarily included and other members of the Government can be invited at the Prime Minister's discretion.
In recent years, non-members of HM Government have been permitted by the Prime Minister to attend Cabinet meetings on a regular basis, notably Alastair Campbell in his capacity as Director of Communications and Strategy between 1997 and 2003, and Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's Chief of Staff, with a distinctly separate role from the Cabinet Secretary/Head of the Civil Service.
The Cabinet has numerous sub-committees which focus on particular policy areas, particularly ones which cut across several ministerial responsibilities, and therefore need coordination. These may be permanent committees or set up for a short duration to look at particular issues ("ad hoc committees"). Junior Ministers are also often members of these committees, in addition to Secretaries of State. The transaction of government business through meetings of the Cabinet and its many committees is administered by a small secretariat within the Cabinet Office.
Most Prime Ministers have had a so-called "kitchen cabinet" consisting of their own trusted advisers who may be Cabinet members but are often trusted personal advisers on their own staff. In recent governments (generally from Margaret Thatcher), and especially in that of Tony Blair, it has been reported that many, or even all major decisions have been said to be made before cabinet meetings. This suggestion has been made by former ministers such as Clare Short and Chris Smith, in the media, and was made clear in the Butler Review, where Blair's style of "sofa government" was censured.
These are derived from the fact the members of the cabinet are members of Parliament, and therefore accountable to it, because Parliament is sovereign. Cabinet collective responsibility means that members of the cabinet make decisions collectively, and are therefore responsible for the consequences of these decisions collectively. Therefore, when a vote of no confidence is passed in Parliament, every minister and government official drawn from Parliament is expected to resign from the executive. So, logically, cabinet ministers who disagree with major decisions are expected to resign, as, to take a recent example, Robin Cook did over the decision to attack Iraq in 2003.
Individual ministerial responsibility is the convention that in their capacity as head of department, a minister is responsible for the actions, and therefore the failings too, of their department. Since the civil service is permanent and anonymous, under circumstances of gross incompetence in their department, a minister 'must' resign. Perhaps surprisingly, this is relatively rare in practice, perhaps because, whilst many would consider incompetence more harmful than personal scandal, it is of less interest to more populist elements of the media, and less susceptible to unequivocal proof. The closest example in recent years is perhaps Estelle Morris who resigned as Secretary of State for Education and Skills in 2002 of her own volition (following severe problems and inaccuracies in the marking of A-level exams). The circumstances under which this convention is followed are of course not possible to strictly define, and depend on many other factors. If a minister's reputation is seen to be tarnished by a personal scandal (for example when it was revealed that David Mellor had an extramarital affair) they very often resign. This often follows a short period of intense media and opposition pressure for them to do so. In general, despite numerous scandals, in Britain cases of serious corruption (e.g. acceptance of bribes) are relatively rare in comparison with many other democracies. One reason is because of the strength of the whip system and political parties in comparison to individual politicians. This means MPs and ministers have little capacity to be influenced by external groups offering money.
Questions can be tabled for Cabinet ministers in either house of Parliament (a process called interpellation in political science), which can either be for written or oral reply. Cabinet ministers must answer them, either themselves or through a deputy. Written answers, which are usually more specific and detailed than oral questions are usually written by a civil servant. Answers to written and oral questions are published in Hansard. Parliament cannot dismiss individual ministers (though members may of course call for their resignation) but the House of Commons is able to determine the fate of the entire Government. If a vote of no confidence in the Government passes, then the Queen will seek to restore confidence either by a dissolution of Parliament and the election of a new one, or by the acceptance of the resignation of her entire government collectively.
In the United Kingdom's parliamentary system, the executive is not separate from the legislature, since Cabinet members are drawn from Parliament. Moreover the executive tends to dominate the legislature for several reasons:
The combined effect of the Prime Minister's ability to control Cabinet by circumventing effective discussion in Cabinet and the executive's ability to dominate parliamentary proceedings places the British Prime Minister in a position of great power that has been likened to an elective dictatorship (a phrase coined by Lord Hailsham in 1976). The relative impotence of Parliament to hold the Government of the day to account is often cited by the UK media as a justification for the vigour with which they question and challenge the Government.
In contemporary times, the nature of the cabinet has been criticised by some, largely because several Prime Ministers are perceived as acting in a "presidential" manner. Such an accusation was made at Tony Blair as he was believed to have refrained from using the Cabinet as a collective decision-making body. These actions caused concern as it contravened the convention of the PM being "first among equals". In this sense, he was acting like a US President, who (unlike the British PM) is not constitutionally bound to make decisions collectively with a cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was also noted as being "presidential", in the capacity that she "forced" her own viewpoints onto her Cabinet. However the power that a Prime Minster has over his or her Cabinet colleagues is directly proportional to the amount of support that they have with their political parties and this is often related to whether the party considers them to be an electoral asset or liability. Further when a party is divided into factions a Prime Minister may be forced to include other powerful party members in the Cabinet for party political cohesion.
The parliamentary leadership of other opposition parties are conventionally known as their Frontbench Team, but in recent years the Liberal Democrat Party, currently the third-largest party in Parliament, have started to also use the term Shadow Cabinet.