The Cabinet and the Prime Minister


The sources of a Prime Minister's Power

The prime minister's powers derive from the following sources:

  • · He or she enjoys prerogative powers. In other words, the powers of the monarch as head of state are now exercised by the prime minister in her place. These are:

  • - to command and direct the armed forces

  • - to conduct foreign policy negotiations and sign treaties

  • - to appoint and dismiss government ministers Patronage

  • - to nominate individuals for peerages

  • - to approve the appointment of senior judges and Church of England bishops

  • - to speak on behalf of the nation to the media and the people

  • · He or she is leader of the governing party. Because the governing party (or coalition) has 'won' the most recent election, that party has the right to form the government. As leader of that party, the prime minister is acknowledged to be the senior policy maker and controller of government appointments.

  • · He or she has some elective authority in that he or she can claim to be the leader of the party that has won a popular election.

  • · He or she enjoys the authority of Parliament. The prime minister leads his or her party, not just in the country, but also in Parliament.

  • -Media attention- The Pm enjoys a much higher profile than any other member of the government.

The power of the prime minister and Cabinet

The factors governing the prime minister's selection of ministers- The greasy pole

The power to appoint, reshuffle and dismiss ministers (hire and fire) belongs exclusively to the prime minister. There has only been one exception to this in recent times. As part of the negotiations to form the coalition in May 2010, David Cameron had to allow the Liberal Democrats five of the 22 Cabinet posts. Nominations to these (and to an agreed number of junior posts) were the preserve of the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. When a Liberal Democrat minister resigned, Clegg found a replacement from his own party. This meant that there was a formal constraint on the prime minister's power of appointment. However, even in a single-party government a prime minister does not in practice have total freedom to appoint whom he or she wants. In practice the composition of a Cabinet will depend on a range of considerations.

· Selecting the members of a cabinet is one of the key roles played by a prime minister. If they get this wrong, they will suffer difficulties ranging from poor policy making to constant threats to their own position. It may seem simple — to choose the best men and women for the job; but there is more to it than that.

To pack the cabinet with the prime minister’s own allies. This ensures unity and bolsters the prime minister’s power, but it may lack critical voices who can improve decision making. After 1982 this was the tactic adopted by Margaret Thatcher (1979–90), an especially dominant prime minister with a great singularity of purpose. Tony Blair (1997–2007) adopted a similar approach.

To pick a balanced cabinet that reflects the different policy tendencies in the ruling party. When Theresa May became prime minister in 2016 she chose such a cabinet, which included some of her former adversaries such as Boris Johnson, David Davis, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox. It was especially important for her to include members who were both in favour of and against leaving the EU. She did, though, keep some key allies close to her, including Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd. John Major (1990–97) was forced into choosing a similarly varied cabinet.

To pick a cabinet of the best possible people. Such a cabinet has not been seen since the 1960s and 1970s when Harold Wilson (1964–70, 1974–76) and James Callaghan (1976–79) assembled a group ‘of all the talents’. Prime ministers have complete patronage powers so they can reshuffle their cabinets at will. Some prime ministers have changed the personnel in this way annually. Dismissing and appointing new ministers is a device prime ministers can use for asserting and re-asserting their authority, as well as ensuring the quality of government.

Neutralise a potential rebel or rival — because of collective responsibility, including such a potential opponent can be an effective way of silencing them (2016 Boris Johnson) (2017 Michael Gove's return to the Cabinet as Environment Secretary after May's disastrous election- seen as an effort to neutralize a rival and placate the brexiteers)


Sajid Javid resigned when the prime minister Boris Johnson ordered him to fire his team of aides, saying "no self-respecting minister" could accept such a condition. He has been replaced as chancellor by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak - who just seven months ago was a junior housing minister but seen as both loyal and a chancellor who would focus on the economy without ambitions to run government as Gordon Brown had done under Blair.

· Rewarding loyalty and including key allies — but also conciliating potential rivals Blair began his second term in 2001 by appointing several committed supporters of the New Labour project to key positions, including David Blunkett as Home Secretary and Alan Milburn as Health Secretary. They were also personally loyal to him. It is politically wise to occupy potentially troublesome MPs with senior posts, even if this means handling tensions within the team. Blair's appointment of Brown as chancellor, and his acceptance that he could not move him to another post against his wishes, is a good example of this limitation on a prime minister's freedom of action.

· Meeting expectations of diversity When he formed his first Cabinet in 1990, John Major faced adverse comment for including no women — something that he later corrected. Since then it has become the norm for prime ministers to appoint a number of female ministers, and not only to middle- and lower-ranking Cabinet posts. Margaret Beckett, made Foreign Secretary by Tony Blair in 2006, was the first woman to hold one of the three most senior posts under the prime minister. There has also been greater representation of ethnic-minority groups in recent years. Sajid Javid, a leading MP of Asian background, has served in both the Cameron and May governments.

Reshuffle Sept 2021 Boris wields the axe



The relationship between Cabinet and prime minister

There are three competing models of British government:

· Prime ministerial government This suggests that the prime minister is dominant, controls the cabinet and the whole policy-making process.As the 20th century progressed, increasing concerns were expressed about the traditional theory of cabinet government. These were invariably fuelled by an awareness of the growing power of the prime minister. In many ways, this process can be traced back to the 19th century and the development of disciplined political parties, enabling the prime minister to use the leverage of party leadership. How could the prime minister any longer be dismissed as ‘first among equals’ if the focus of party loyalty focused on him as opposed to his ‘equals’? This led to the belief that cabinet government had been replaced by prime-ministerial government, an assertion first made by Richard Crossman (1963) in a new introduction to Bagehot’s English Constitution. The core feature of this view is that it is the prime minister, and not the cabinet, who dominates both the executive and Parliament. This happens because the prime minister is both head of the civil service and the leader of the largest party in the Commons.

· Cabinet government This implies that the cabinet remains the centre of power and the main source of policy making. Though the prime minister is the senior member, ultimately the cabinet controls all policy. This relationship describes the PM as 'Primus Inter Pares' First Among Equals. This ‘traditional’ view of the UK executive emphasises that power is collective and not personal. It is located in the cabinet rather than the prime minister. Moreover, within the cabinet, all ministers are equal. Each of them has the capacity to influence government policy and shape the direction in which the government is going. Such a view has clear implications for the prime minister, who is regarded as ‘first’ in name only. In other words, the prime minister has no more power than any other member of the cabinet. The theory of cabinet government is underpinned by the convention of collective responsibility, in which all ministers are expected to support publicly decisions made by the cabinet, or resign from the government. This helps to ensure cabinet collegiality, in the sense that disagreement or dissent is only ever expressed within the secrecy of the cabinet room and never in public

-Core Executive, this model sees power as much more fluid and shared between different parts of the government-Cabinet, Senior Civil Servants, PM, Ministers and their departments. In some areas the PM dominates and in others individual ministers have control. An alternative way of understanding where power lies is to go beyond the simplistic ‘cabinet versus prime minister’ debate and to recognise that both the prime minister and cabinet operate within the context of the ‘core executive’. This model suggests that: • Neither the prime minister nor the cabinet is an independent actor. • Each of them exercises influence in and through a network of relationships, formal and informal. This brings a range of other actors and institutions into the picture.

The balance of power within the core executive is affected by the resources available to its various actors. • Wider factors, such as economic and diplomatic developments, influence the workings of the core executive. What does the core-executive model tell us about executive power?

• It emphasises that prime ministerial power is not only constrained by cabinet collegiality, but also by the need to operate within a complex of organisations and procedures. Power is never monocratic (concentrated in the hands of a single person or body).

• It highlights that power within the executive is more about building relationships with key bodies and actors than simply being a matter of ‘command and control’.

The Cabinet Remains an Important Body

The Cabinet approves government decisions, so confers legitimacy on them in the eyes of Parliament and the public. A minister who cannot accept the agreed line, such as Robin Cook over the Iraq War, should resign from the Cabinet.

On important issues, the PM recognises the need for Cabinet support. After completing his renegotiation of the UK's membership of the EU in 2016, Cameron presented the deal to a full Cabinet meeting. The Cabinet is also important in times of national crisis, such as a military conflict, although (as in the Falklands War in 1982) day-to-day decisions may be taken by a smaller 'War Cabinet' of key ministers and armed service leaders, whose decisions are then reported to the full Cabinet.

The Cabinet is where the programme of government business in Parliament is discussed. In theory, it is where disagreements between government departments are resolved.

The UK does not have a 'presidential' system in reality, even if it has some characteristics of one. The fall of Thatcher demonstrates the continuing importance of keeping the support of the Cabinet

The PM is dominant

Decisions are commonly taken by Cabinet committees, hand-picked by the PM, or in small groups and bilateral meetings, such as the 1997 Blair/Brown decision to hand control of interest rates to the Bank of England. Cabinet 'rubber stamps' decisions were taken elsewhere. Blair was accused of 'Sofa politics' by making decisions informally in his flat. PMs have increasingly used bilateral decision making i.e meeting key ministers to make decisions rather than discussion in cabinet.

The PM controls the agenda and length of Cabinet meetings (less than an hour under some PMs). It only meets once a week, and then only while Parliament is sitting, unless an emergency occurs. Most ministers do not feel qualified, and are too immersed in their own departments, to be able to offer an informed view on the detail of matters outside their remit. Most are reluctant to challenge the PM, who has the power to dismiss or demote ministers..

In practice, disputes are usually resolved outside the Cabinet, in committees or by the intervention of the PM (for example, Cameron's settlement of the 2011 clash between Chris Huhne, Energy Secretary, and Vince Cable, Business Secretary, on the level of carbon emission targets to which the UK should sign up).

The Media focus heavilly on the PM. (for example, in the televised leadership debates in the 2010 and 2015 elections). Modern PMs tend to project themselves as national leaders, separate from the

institutions of government, and with a personal mandate from the people for action.

The Cabinet is formally responsible for policy-making. However, in recent times it has been more usual for decisions to be taken elsewhere, and it is often claimed that the executive is now dominated by the prime minister to an undue degree. Some commentators have argued that the result has been the rise of presidential government — the idea that leadership is becoming much more personalised, and that prime ministers are distant from, and much less dependent on, traditional institutions such as the Cabinet.

The Role of the Cabinet

· It formalises and legitimises official government policy.

Formally, the cabinet remains the ultimate decision-making body in the government. Yet for most areas of government activity, the cabinet is not an important actor in the decision-making process. Its role is more significant when:

■ issues are especially important or sensitive

■ major or unexpected developments require a rapid decision

■ government departments and ministerial committees have been unable to reach agreement

Ministers can advise and warn, but it is the prime minister who must ultimately make a decision. The prime minister sums up the discussions and announces a verdict. Votes are rarely taken as they would reveal divisions.

· It sometimes deals with disputes between different government departments and ministers when their proposals conflict or when there are problems allocating scarce government funds between different uses. Settling disputes If an issue cannot be settled in cabinet committee or bilateral meetings, it may be referred to the cabinet. Some appeals are straightforward matters of arbitration between competing departmental claims, for example over spending allocations or which department will lead on legislation. The cabinet judges the strength of the cases and reaches a binding decision. This role as a court of appeal does not always work smoothly. In the 1985 Westland affair, secretary of state for defence Michael Heseltine resigned because he was unhappy with Thatcher’s ruling that cabinet would not hear his appeal against a cabinet committee decision on the award of a defence contract.

It may meet in special session to deal with a crisis or emergency situation. There was, for example, a series of meetings to formulate a response to the banking and financial crisis which affected the UK in 2007-9.

Cabinet is where the presentation of policy is determined. This is to ensure that ministers coordinate the way in which policy is portrayed to the media and the public.

The business of Parliament is arranged in the cabinet in conjunction with the party whips.

Policy formulation rarely takes place in the cabinet, but from time to time the prime minister may invite the whole cabinet to discuss an important issue of the day. The decision to bid for the 2012 Olympics was decided in the cabinet, as has been the future of energy policy.


· How the prime minister can control the cabinet

There is a variety of ways in which the prime minister can manipulate or influence the way cabinet operates and the decisions it reaches. Among them are the following:


Patronage All ministers are appointed by the prime minister and can be dismissed by him or her. The PM can also reshuffle them, sometimes promoting or demoting them.

· Control of the cabinet agenda The PM decides what is brought to cabinet. This gives him or her an opportunity to control the making of policy (though not completely — ministers can insist on an agenda item).

· Bilateral agreements These are arrangements made by the prime minister with individual ministers or groups of ministers outside the main cabinet. Under Tony Blair, it was said these meetings took place on the sofa of his private office and so the practice became known as 'sofa government'.

· Collective responsibility It underpins prime ministerial control. Because ministers must accept official government policy, the prime minister can expect their loyalty. Rebellious ministers put their careers in jeopardy.

· Use of inner cabinets (Kitchen Cabinets) An inner cabinet is a group of very senior ministers who are close to the prime minister. Members of such a group can control cabinet by determining policy among themselves. PMs also make decisions in Cabinet Committees-small sub-committees of the Cabinet.

Factors that affect the relationship and how they have changed


· The management skills of the prime minister some PMs are better at managing the cabinet. A skilled prime minister will exploit the elastic nature of the office to assert control over the Cabinet. The right to appoint and dismiss ministers can be used to reshape the top team, to remove poor performers and bring in new blood, and to marginalise opponents. Patronage

· The prime minister's ability to set the agenda Decisions are rarely, if ever, taken in Cabinet by holding a vote. The prime minister's traditional right to chair the meeting and to sum up at the end is an important source of influence. He or she can also keep certain items off the agenda of Cabinet meetings. Harold Wilson, for example, refused to allow discussion of devaluation of the pound in the period 1964-67, even though several ministers wanted to open up the argument.

· The use of Cabinet committees and informal groups to take decisions Since 1945 prime ministers have made increasing use of Cabinet committees to take decisions, which are later ratified by the full Cabinet. By choosing the membership of these committees, and taking the chair of the most important ones — or placing this responsibility in the hands of a reliable ally —

the prime minister can exercise a significant degree of control. On entering Number 10, Theresa May decided to chair three important committees, including the one dealing with the crucial issue of Britain's exit from the EU. Many decisions are taken in smaller, informal groups, or in bilateral meetings. For example, the market-sensitive decision to place management of interest rates in the hands of the Bank of England was taken by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown within days of the 1997 election victory, and the rest of the Cabinet were informed later. Under the coalition, the presence of two parties in government meant that it was necessary to have more discussion of policy in Cabinet. Yet, even then, an informal body known as 'the Quad' — David Cameron, Nick Clegg and their two most senior colleagues, Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander — met regularly to resolve differences between the coalition partners.

· The development of the Prime Minister's Office and the Cabinet Office Although there is no official 'Prime Minister's Department', the prime minister has access to more resources than other ministers, with a Prime Minister's Office in Number 10 Downing Street staffed by a combination of civil servants and special advisers drawn from the governing party. Harold Wilson created the Policy Unit in 1974 to enable the prime minister to gain an overview and to drive policy across departments. Under Blair there was close co-operation between the Prime Minister's Office and the Cabinet Office to support the co-ordination and implementation of policy. The Press Office, which handles the government's presentation in the media, also works closely with the prime minister. Under Blair it gained enhanced importance as part of a newly created Communications and Strategy Directorate in Downing Street. Boris Johnson was seen as too reliant on his adviser Dominic Cummings.

· The impact of the wider political and economic situation It is important to note that the degree to which the prime minister can dominate the Cabinet is affected by a variety of external pressures. A prime minister with a large parliamentary majority and a united party, such as Blair in the wake of the 1997 Labour landslide, will find it much easier to gain ascendancy than one like Major, whose control over the Commons was precarious from 1992 onwards. Popularity with the public, a booming economy and an ability to master events rather than appear as their victim all strengthen the hand of the prime minister in dealing with the Cabinet. Margaret Thatcher's standing improved enormously after victory in the 1982 Falklands War. Gordon Brown was harmed by his decision not to hold a general election on becoming prime minister, after allowing expectations of a contest to build, and his authority was further undermined by the financial crash of 2007-08. Theresa May lost authority when Parliament rejected her deal with the EU over Brexit.

The limitations on prime ministerial power

Permanent limitations

· The cabinet has the power to overrule a prime minister. The prime minister is limited by the knowledge that he or she must carry the cabinet with him or her.

· The ruling party could remove a prime minister. Though this has not occurred in recent history (with the possible exception that it was pressure from the membership that led to Tony Blair's premature resignation in 2007), the prime minister needs to be careful to maintain the support of his or her party membership.

· Parliament can overrule a prime minister by digging in its heels in opposition to a policy of the prime minister.

The electorate can bring an end to a prime minister's position. The prime minister will have to face re-election eventually and so must take public opinion into account

Variable limitations

Here we identify factors which may weaken a specific prime minister.

We can summarise these variable limitations thus:

  • · adverse events' Events, dear boy, events' (Harold Macmillan)

  • · a small or non-existent parliamentary majority for the PM's party

  • · internal party opposition- divided party

  • · unfavourable media image

  • · negative public image