The changing cabinet

The role of the cabinet

For much of the twentieth century, the main debate about executive power was whether the UK still had a system of cabinet government or had developed one of prime-ministerial government. In his classic text The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot described a system of cabinet government in which the prime minister was ‘first among equals’ (or primus inter pares) but decision making was a collective endeavour. By the second half of the twentieth century, the cabinet had been weakened and the powers of the prime minister had expanded. Proponents of the prime- ministerial government thesis argued that the prime minister was now the dominant actor and bypassed the cabinet when taking key decisions.

Perhaps surprisingly, the role of the cabinet is both changeable and unclear. Indeed, like the role of the prime minister, its existence is merely an unwritten constitutional convention. To some extent, what it does may vary from one prime minister to another. It may also depend on political circumstances. For example, when the UK was led by a coalition government from 2010 to 2015 the cabinet had a much wider role than usual. Following the 2016 decision to leave the EU, the cabinet had the additional role of overseeing the exit negotiations.

Some prime ministers may use the cabinet as an important sounding board for ideas and policy initiatives. John Major and David Cameron, for example, used it in this way. Other prime ministers, notably Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, had little time for cabinet discussion and tended to use it simply to legitimise decisions made elsewhere. Margaret Thatcher (1979–90), indeed, was notorious for downgrading cabinet to a rubber stamp for her own ideas. One of her ministers, Nicholas Ridley, expressed her style thus:

Margaret Thatcher was going to be the leader in her Cabinet. She wasn’t going to

be an impartial chairman. She knew what she wanted to do and was not going to

have faint hearts in the Cabinet stopping her.

Source: quoted in Hennessy, P., The Prime Ministers, Allen Lane, p. 400

The decline of the cabinet has enhanced the power of the prime minister. Cabinet meets less often, for shorter periods, and is less of a collective body than it used to be. e.g Blair's Millennium Dome decision. PMs dominate policy leadership-e.g May's support for Grammar Schools contrasted with Cameron's lack of enthusiasm.

We have a few insights into what Blair’s cabinets were like. These come from some diaries (such as those of Robin Cook) and also from comments and speeches from those who left or were removed from the cabinet (such as Clare Short). These give the impression of Blair taking something of a presidential approach to cabinet, with short full-cabinet meetings generally rubber-stamping decisions that had been taken elsewhere (either in various bilateral meetings, cabinet committees or in what came to be described as “sofa government”: Blair’s meetings with close advisers and supporters outside the formal government structures). 

Tony Blair repeatedly sidelined his Cabinet colleagues as he exploited ‘group-think’ to railroad through the Iraq invasion, Sir John Chilcot found.

In an attack on Mr Blair’s style of ‘sofa’ government, his report revealed that on at least 11 occasions, decisions were taken without any reference to the most senior figures in his own Cabinet.

Yet, despite the variability of the cabinet’s position, it does have a number of functions which are common to all administrations in the UK. These are as follows:

In spite of the need to carry out these functions from time to time, most of cabinet’s time is taken up with ratifying decisions reached elsewhere. Ministers are informed in advance of such proposals. Their civil servants prepare brief summaries of what is being proposed and any likely problems that might arise. If ministers decide they have some misgivings about proposals, they normally raise them with the prime minister or cabinet secretary before the meeting, not during it. Despite what the popular press often claims, cabinet ‘rows’ are rare. Any negotiations that need to be done will normally be settled outside the cabinet room.

So, the cabinet is a kind of ‘clearing house’ for decisions. Little discussion is needed. The prime minister will check that everyone can support a decision and it invariably goes through ‘on the nod’.

The powers of the UK cabinet

The cabinet has a number of important roles but, surprisingly perhaps, it has relatively few powers of its own. This is largely because the prime minister has her or his own rival powers. However, we can identify a number of powers that the cabinet has, whatever the prime minister may try to do. These are as follows:

It is the cabinet that legitimises government policy and interprets what government policy actually is. The prime minister will have a say in this, but ultimately it is a cabinet power to organise the presentation of official policy.

 Again, though the prime minister has influence, it is a specific power of the cabinet to determine the government’s legislative agenda — what policies are to be implemented first and which can wait.

The cabinet does not have absolute power to remove a prime minister. There is no such thing as a ‘vote of no confidence’ in the cabinet. Nevertheless, cabinet can effectively drive a prime minister out of power by refusing to support them in public. The removal of a prime minister has two main procedures: either forcing the prime minister to resign through public criticism (as happened to Tony Blair in 2007) or provoking a leadership contest in the governing party which the prime minister may lose (as happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990).

 The cabinet does have the power to overrule a prime minister if it can summon up enough political will and sufficient support for an alternative policy. In 2015,for example, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced by his cabinet to suspend collective responsibility in the EU referendum campaign to allow ministers to express their own personal views.

Apart from those described above, the cabinet does not really have any powers of its own. Government power is effectively shared between the prime minister and cabinet.

The Cabinet After 2010

After the 2010 general election, no party enjoyed an overall majority in the House of Commons. It was therefore necessary to form a coalition which could command such a majority. The alternative would have been a minority government. Minority government is a daunting prospect. Such a government has to build a majority of support among MPs for each individual legislative proposal. This is extremely difficult and the government constantly faces the imminent prospect of defeat. Minority governments have survived in Scotland and Wales, and there was a brief period of minority (Labour) government in the UK from February to October 1974, but they are rare exceptions. So in 2010, when there was a hung parliament, a coalition was quickly agreed between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships. 

The arrangements for coalition were as follows:

 As leader of the larger of the coalition partners, David Cameron was to be prime minister. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was to be deputy prime minister.

The coalition could be viewed as a brief ‘golden age’ for the cabinet. Suddenly, after years of becoming less and less significant, being increasingly marginalised within government and ignored by prime ministers, the cabinet was important again. This was largely because the cabinet now had as essential role in the politics of the coalition.:


David Cameron used an  ‘inner cabinet’. This consisted of himself, Chancellor George Osborne, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and Danny Alexander, Osborne’s Liberal Democrat deputy. They were collectively known as the Quad. Cabinet is too big to serve the prime minister constantly, so such inner groups could be seen as undermining cabinet government.

Theresa May's Cabinet 2016-2018

There were signs early in May’s premiership that she may be a strong prime minister:

■ reorganisation of the cabinet system, with the prime minister carrying out an extensive cabinet reshuffle, chairing key cabinet committees and strengthening the Prime Minister’s Office

■ significant support within her party — 199 Conservative MPs (61%) voted for her on the second ballot of the 2016 leadership election

■ strong performance in opinion polls

■ her extensive ministerial experience before becoming prime minister

This provided May with the opportunity to break openly with her predecessor’s legacy and, in the process, to establish her own authority. The highest profile casualties of the reshuffle were therefore the ministers who had been closest to Cameron – George Osborne, Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin  – while those promoted were often either independent figures such as Philip Hammond (chancellor of the exchequer) or people on whose loyalty May could count, such as Amber Rudd (home secretary), Liz Truss (education secretary) and Justine Greening (justice secretary).  May's presidential style was reinforced by her reliance on two special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill who gained a reputation as fierce gate keepers with a direct influence on the PM.

However, limits to her personal power as prime minister became apparent:

May was forced to construct a cabinet clearly committed to delivering Brexit, while she was a ‘Remainer’, albeit a reluctant one. The number of ‘Brexiters’ in the cabinet increased from four to seven, but May’s crucial move was to appoint high-profile Brexiteers to the three posts most closely linked to the process of EU withdrawal – Boris Johnson (foreign secretary), Liam Fox (international trade secretary) and David Davis (Brexit secretary). The loyalty of her cabinet would therefore depend on the successful delivery of Brexit.

■ the damage to her personal authority caused by calling an early general election, then performing badly in a campaign in which she chose to focus on her ‘strong and stable’ leadership

■ losing her parliamentary majority in the election, and becoming a minority government reliant on support from the Democratic Unionist Party

■ divisions within the cabinet and among Conservative MPs over her leadership and policy direction

■ the scale of the domestic and foreign policy challenges posed by Brexit

■ a sharp reduction in her standing in the opinion polls

The collapse in May’s authority following the 2017 general election was so pronounced that it seemed highly unlikely that she could survive as prime minister for a full term.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson comes from an extremely privileged background and studied classics at Oxford .Johnson replaced Theresa May as prime minister in July 2019, soundly beating Jeremy Hunt, his last surviving opponent in the Conservative Party leadership contest. 

The Cabinet under Boris  Johnson 2019-

Johnson's presidential style.

Johnson favours direct communication with the people rather than via traditional media. In August 2019 he took part in a ‘People’s PMQ’ session on Facebook and has also used Facebook to make policy announcements. This is controversial as it allows Johnson to control his relationship with the public by, for example, choosing which questions he will answer and avoiding follow-up questions. He can be seen as an example of Foley’s theory of spatial leadership — he has distanced himself from the parliamentary party by creating a cabinet of allies rather than balance.

One of Johnson’s most controversial decisions in his leadership was his appointment of Dominic Cummings as a special adviser. Cummings was the central figure in the Leave campaign and has taken an aggressive approach to his role, for example stepping in to sack advisers seen as potentially disloyal. He has quickly become a hate figure among many MPs who see him as responsible for encouraging Johnson to illegally prorogue Parliament and, as the Supreme Court judged, lie to the queen about the reason for doing this. Cummings survived breaking the lockdown rules he had devised by taking a potentially illegal trip to Barnard Castle- prompting some to wonder what Cummings had on Johnson but Cummings was finally sacked when he fell out with Johnsons girl friend Carrie Symonds. Cummings then became a critic of the government's handling of the Covid pandemic.

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.

Johnson created a cabinet of his own which left out many experienced MPs and rewarded loyalty.The inexperience of Johnson’s Cabinet is unusual for a party that has been in power for so long. Brown’s 2010 Labour Cabinet had four ministers — including the prime minister himself — who were in Cabinet in 2000. Margaret Thatcher’s 1990 Cabinet had three veterans of 1980, including the prime minister and her deputy. Among Johnson’s team, Gove stands alone of the original 2010 team. 

For the government’s critics, the danger of an inexperienced Cabinet is that it invests too much power in too small a team: namely Johnson, his chief advisers and a few trusted allies from the former Vote Leave campaign. That concentration of power and strategizing can lead to good ideas not being heard, and bad ideas not being checked.

An editorial in the Financial Times  — in the wake of the scandal surrounding Cummings’ alleged breaches of lockdown rules —  accused Johnson of presiding over “a bunker of close allies surrounded by a lightweight, supine and largely ineffectual Cabinet chosen mainly for their commitment to Brexit or their loyalty to Mr Johnson.”

More control of communications was taken in to the Number 10 machine. Plans for presidential style press briefing were planned and an expensive briefing room was refurbished- although this was later dropped there were daily press conferences on  the ‘success’ of the Covid-19 policies. This is not the first time that No 10 has tried to centralise communication. Alastair Campbell shook up the Government Information Service when he became Tony Blair’s powerful Director of Communications, and introduced the grid to coordinate communications. Ministers had to clear their announcements with No 10 rather than freelance unhelpfully (as No 10 would see it). 

But this change effectively reduces the Cabinet to just another set of government spokespeople, allowed out only when No 10 wants. Not one story has said whether the Cabinet were consulted about this change.

Liz Truss  favoured those who supported her in the Conservative leadership contest, rather than trying to include different strands of opinion within the party. Ministers identified with the defeated candidate, Rishi Sunak, have been evicted to make way for Truss loyalists such as the new Health Secretary and Deputy PM, Thérèse Coffey. Apart from Sunak himself, the other leadership contenders have been given Cabinet positions. This makes political sense in terms of conciliating rivals at the top of the governing party. However, it is worth noting that most of these senior figures endorsed Truss after dropping out of the contest. Conspicuous by their absence in Truss’ new top team are the experienced big names who supported her chief opponent Rishi Sunak — not to mention Sunak himself — creating what looks like a Cabinet of ultra-loyalists rather than one which aims to bring together a divided Conservative Party.

Boring but pragmatic- Rishi Sunak's Cabinet

A clue to Rishi Sunak's first  cabinet is the prominence of two chancellors – of the exchequer and the Duchy of Lancaster – and the limited role of the deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. Chancellors Jeremy Hunt and Oliver Dowden are chairs and deputy chairs of multiple committees, and Hunt has control of the wide-ranging Home Affairs Committee. Chairing a committee matters beyond the status it conveys – both in the meeting when deciding how to manage the discussion and to sum up, and before and after in setting the agenda and prioritising follow up work. So chairing 'HA' gives Hunt the opportunity to range widely across the domestic policy agenda and, as importantly, strengthens the Treasury’s already powerful role in blocking initiatives of which Hunt does not approve. 

This reinforces the idea that Raab’s role as deputy is more about status and symbolism than as a genuine no.2 to Sunak. It also shows that the Treasury – orthodox or otherwise – will play a central role in policy-making in this government. And if the prime minister is serious about continuing Johnson’s plans to level up the UK he might come to regret the lack of a specific committee on a project which will only succeed with tight cross-government co-ordination.

However boring he tried to be Sunak had to include the very un boring- rather bonkers- Suella Braverman for reasons of unity and because he needed her support to become PM. Braverman was dismissed as Home Secretary in the cabinet reshuffle of 13 November 2023, and was replaced by James Cleverly, who had been the Foreign Secretary. David Cameron became Foreign Secretary in a move seen a a return to 'boring'.

December 2023 Robert Jenrick  resigned after the publication of the emergency legislation that will disapply sections of the Human Rights Act