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How Cabinet works

Aneurin Bevan at the time of his 1951 resignation from Cabinet.
Aneurin Bevan dramatically resigned from Cabinet in 1951 over the introduction of NHS charges. Bevan's departure highlighted divisions in Cabinet, and weakened Clement Attlee's government.
©Topfoto

The Cabinet and its associated bodies are key to central government in the United Kingdom. The Cabinet consists of politicians who are aided by a body of civil servants. Decision-making is not confined to the Cabinet; Cabinet Committees can play an important role in deliberations.

What is the Cabinet?

The Cabinet is the main body that controls policy and coordinates activities of governmental departments. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and consists of most of the ministerial heads of departments, as well as some additional members. During peacetime it typically consists of 20 members. During the two world wars the size of the Cabinet was reduced to enable rapid decision-making. It proceeds by joint discussion and decision-making, which requires collective responsibility for policy and outcomes. Members may therefore need to put aside departmental priorities and preferences to achieve coherence of overall policy. If a minister cannot agree to abide by collective decision, traditionally they have to resign.

The role of the Prime Minister

After a general election, the appointment of a Prime Minister is the prerogative of the Sovereign, and the latter is guided by constitutional conventions. Please see the official website of the British Monarchy for more information on the constitutional conventions surrounding the appointment of a Prime Minister.

Technically the Prime Minister advises the monarch on who should be asked to join the government, but in reality it is up to the Prime Minister to ask members of the Commons or Lords into government and sack them if they do not perform their duties in the manner that the Prime Minister deems correct. Additionally, the Prime Minister exerts a huge amount of patronage through the system of honours and awards, which, although bestowed by the monarch, are for the major part decided by the government.

The Cabinet Office

Until 1916 Cabinet meetings took place without an agenda and there was no official recording of Cabinet proceedings. Members relied on recollection to pursue Cabinet policy. In 1916 the Cabinet Office was established, acting as the 'personal assistant' to the Cabinet. It records decisions, organises agendas and meetings and distributes papers for discussion.

Cabinet Committees

The Cabinet Office also serves as the secretariat to many Cabinet Committees. Often the Cabinet is 'overloaded' with business and information. To ensure matters are properly investigated many issues are referred to Cabinet Committees, which are appointed by the Prime Minister (or by the Cabinet) to consider particular questions and to recommend policy.

Cabinet Committees have existed for various periods of time in large numbers. Major standing committees have included the Committee of Imperial Defence, the Home Affairs Committee and the Economic Advisory Committee from the interwar period. Other ad hoc committees have existed but only for very brief periods. There is no clear distinction to be drawn between matters considered by Cabinet and those that were delegated to committees.

Further reading

  • Bogdanor, V. (ed), The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2003)
  • Daalder, H., Cabinet Reform in Britain 1914-1963 (London, 1964)
  • Jenkins, I., Cabinet Government 3rd edn. (London, 1959)
  • Mackintosh, J. P., The British Cabinet 3rd edn. (London, 1977)
  • Seldon, A., Hickson, K. (eds.), New Labour, Old Labour: the Wilson and Callaghan governments, 1974-79 (London, 2004)
  • Walker, P. G., The Cabinet rev. edn. (London, 1972)