Cabinet Committees

Although most decisions formally made by the full cabinet they  have effectively been decided in advance by cabinet committees. Prime ministers are free to create and structure these as they wish. They are partly designed to reduce the burden on the full cabinet by allowing smaller groups of ministers to take decisions on specific policy areas. These committees have been used since the early twentieth century.

Cabinet committees are sub-committees of the full cabinet, which consider particular aspects of government policy. They have been used in greater numbers since 1945, their benefit being that the cabinet works more quickly and efficiently in smaller groups composed of relevant ministers. Senior officials and junior ministers may also be members of cabinet committees, which have, over time, spawned a range of sub-committees and more informal ministerial groups. Cabinet committees are where the real business of government is done.

 Cameron set up ten full cabinet committees in May 2010. In theory, the most important of these was the coalition committee, whose role was to manage the Coalition by providing a forum for reviewing and resolving disputes between its partners. 

The significance of Cabinet Committees depends on how they are used by the PM and ministers. Tony Blair created large numbers of cabinet committees and subcommittees but ‘Blair’s style of government was more informal and he preferred ad hoc meetings (Case Study Tony Blair) described as 'sofa politics', Cabinet committees are an example of a resource that different prime ministers can choose to deploy, rearrange or largely ignore as they see fit.

 Cabinet committees took on additional importance under the coalition government. Oliver Letwin said they helped ‘ensure that the government as a whole would abide by and enforce those rules that underpinned the coalition and ensured the Coalition Agreement was upheld’. However,George Osborne, though, ‘didn’t really believe in cabinet committees’, according to former Liberal Democrat minister Vince Cable, and so the economic committees rarely met. Key decisions were made by a core group called the "Quad", made up of Cameron, Clegg, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, which decided "all major matters of policy" and resolved disputes between the two parties.

Under Theresa May  2016, the number of cabinet committees was halved from ten to five, and when subcommittees and task forces are taken into account, the number has fallen from 31 to 21, although the number of committees chaired by May has remained almost the same, at 10 compared with Cameron’s 11. The number of May's cabinet committees reflect her policy priorities. They include Brexit and international trade, the economy and industrial strategy, social reform and economic affairs (airports).

In March 2020, Johnson announced the creation of four new ‘implementation committees’ in response to the coronavirus pandemic. These four committees focused respectively on healthcare, the general public sector, economic and business, and international response.