In the politics of the United Kingdom, the Cabinet is the collective decision-making body of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, composed of the Prime Minister and some 22 Cabinet Ministers, the most senior of the government ministers.
Ministers of the Crown, and especially Cabinet Ministers, are selected primarily from the elected members of House of Commons, and also from the House of Lords, by the Prime Minister. Cabinet Ministers are heads of government departments, mostly with the office of "Secretary of State for [function, e.g. Defence]". The collective co-ordinating function of the Cabinet is reinforced by the statutory position that all the Secretaries of State jointly hold the same office, and can exercise the same powers.
The Cabinet is the ultimate decision-making body of the executive within the Westminster system of government in traditional constitutional theory. 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.
The Cabinet is the executive committee of Her Majesty's Privy Council, a historic body which has legislative, judicial and executive functions, and whose large membership includes members of the Opposition. Its decisions are generally implemented either under the existing powers of individual government departments, or by Orders-in-Council.
Until at least the sixteenth century, individual Officers of State had separate property, powers and responsibilities granted with their separate offices by Royal Command, and the Crown and the Privy Council constituted the only co-ordinating authorities. In England, phrases such as "cabinet counsel", meaning advice given in private, in a cabinet in the sense of a small room, to the monarch, occur from the late 16th century, and, given the non-standardised spelling of the day, it is often hard to distinguish whether "council" or "counsel" is meant. The OED credits Francis Bacon in his Essays (1605) with the first use of "Cabinet council", where it is described as a foreign habit, of which he disapproves: "For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease". Charles I began a formal "Cabinet Council" from his accession in 1625, as his Privy Council, or "private council", was evidently not private enough, and the first recorded use of "cabinet" by itself for such a body comes from 1644, and is again hostile and associates the term with dubious foreign practises. The process has repeated itself in recent times, as Prime Ministers have felt the need to have a Kitchen Cabinet.
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 selected groups of advisers. The term "minister" came into being since the royal officers "ministered" to the sovereign. 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 modern Cabinet system was set up by Prime Minister David Lloyd George during his premiership 1916–1922, with a Cabinet Office and Secretariat, committee structures, unpublished Minutes, and a clearer relationship with departmental Cabinet Ministers. (The formal procedures, practice and proceedings of the Cabinet remain largely unpublished, if not secret.)
This development grew out of the exigencies of the First World War, where faster and better co-ordinated decisions across Government were seen as a crucial part of the war effort. Decisions on mass conscription, co-ordination worldwide with other governments across international theatres, and armament production tied into a general war strategy that could be developed and overseen from an inner "War Cabinet". The country went through successive crises after the war: 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; and the re-armament and resurgence of Germany from 1933, leading into another World War. All these 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 David Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.
Cabinet Ministers, like all Ministers, are appointed and may be dismissed by the monarch at pleasure (that is, they may be dismissed without notice or reason given, although normally they are given a courteous option to resign), on the advice of the Prime Minister. The allocation and transfer of responsibilities between ministers and departments is also generally at the Prime Ministers' discretion. The Cabinet has always been led by the Prime Minister, whose unpaid office as such was traditionally described as merely primus inter pares (first among equals), but today the Prime Minister is clearly the preeminent head of government, with the power to appoint and dismiss Cabinet ministers and to control the Cabinet's agenda. The extent to which the Government is collegial presumably varies with political conditions and individual personalities.
Any change to the composition of the Cabinet involving more than one appointment is customarily referred to as a reshuffle; a routine reshuffle normally occurs every summer. The total number of ministers allowed to be paid as "Cabinet ministers" is limited by the (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 number in addition to the Prime Minister, currently 23, often fluctuates between 21 and 24.
The Cabinet Secretary is neither a Secretary of State or other minister, nor a member of the Cabinet, but is the professional Head of Her Majesty's Civil Service. (The Cabinet Secretaries of the devolved Scottish Government are Scottish Ministers, unrelated to the U.K. Cabinet).
In formal constitutional terms, the Cabinet is a committee of the Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council. All Cabinet members are created Privy Councillors on appointment (if they are not already Privy Councillors), but only selected Privy Councillors are appointed to the Cabinet or invited to attend. MPs in the Cabinet therefore use the style "The Right Honourable"; Privy Councillors in the House of Lords place the letters "PC" after their names to distinguish themselves, since all peers are "The Right Honourable" or hold a higher style as of right.
Recently the Cabinet has been made up almost entirely of members of the House of Commons. The Leader of the House of Lords is necessarily a member of the House of Lords and the Lord Chancellor was, until recently, always a member of the House of Lords, however the current holder is a member of the House of Commons, but otherwise it is now rare for a peer to sit in the Cabinet. Until the re-appointment to the cabinet of Lord Mandelson on 3 October 2008, 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. Before then, 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. The number of junior ministers who are peers has increased since 1997.
Occasionally cabinet members are selected from outside the Houses of Parliament and if necessary granted a peerage. Harold Wilson appointed Frank Cousins and Patrick Gordon Walker to the 1964 cabinet despite not being MPs at the time. On 3 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 and was immediately made a life peer. During the First World War, the South African politician Jan Smuts served in Lloyd George's War Cabinet without ever becoming a member of either House of the British Parliament.
There are some 100 junior members of the Government who are not members of the Cabinet, including Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State; and unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries are in practice apprentice ministers on the payroll vote. Some of them may be Privy Councillors, or may be appointed to the Privy Council as a mark of distinction, without becoming Cabinet Ministers. Equally, some junior ministers below Cabinet level may be invited to all Cabinet meetings as a matter of course. The Attorney General for England and Wales together with the chair of the governing political party, are customarily included, and other members of the Government can be invited at the Prime Minister's discretion, either regularly or ad-hoc.
In recent years, more non-members of Her Majesty's 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 the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister under Tony Blair, with a distinctly separate role from the Cabinet Secretary/Head of the Civil Service.
The Cabinet meets on a regular basis, usually weekly on a Tuesday morning notionally to discuss the most important issues of government policy, and to make decisions. For a long period of time, Cabinet met on a Thursday, and it was only after the appointment of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister that the meeting day was switched to Tuesday. However, since becoming prime minister, David Cameron has held his cabinet meetings on Thursdays again. The length of meetings varies according to the style of the Prime Minister and political conditions, but today meetings can be as little as 30 minutes in length, which suggests announcement or ratification of decisions taken in committee, by informal groups, or in bi-lateral discussions between the Prime Minister and individual colleagues, with discussion in Cabinet itself very limited. The Prime Minister normally has a weekly audience with The Queen thereafter.
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. Consequent Orders-in-Council are normally made by the Queen-in-Council with a quorum of the Privy Council, which meets monthly or ad-hoc.
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 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.