The Cabinet is at the heart of executive decisions in British politics. In January 2005, the government’s Cabinet is as follows:

Prime Minister = Tony Blair

Deputy Prime Minister = John Prescott

Chancellor of the Exchequer = Gordon Brown

Home Secretary = Charles Clarke

Foreign Minister = Jack Straw

Leader of the House = Peter Hain

Chief Whip = Hilary Armstrong +

Defence Minister = Geoff Hoon

Health Minister = Dr John Reid

Education Minister = Ruth Kelly

Environment Minister = Margaret Beckett

Transport Minister = Alaistair Darling

Works and Pensions Minister = Andrew Smith

Trade and Industry Minister = Patricia Hewitt

Culture and Sport = Tessa Jowell

Chief Secretary to the Treasury = Paul Boateng

Minister without Portfolio = Ian Macartney *  

Duchy of Lancaster = Alan Milburn

Northern Ireland Minister = Paul Murphy

International Development Minister = Hilary Benn

Leader of the House of Lords = Baroness Amos

Constitutional Affairs = Lord Falconer *+

* = also party chairman

+ = not in charge of a department and not strictly a cabinet member but the chief whip is in on cabinet meetings so that the cabinet can get an idea of how backbench MP’s feel about policies etc.

*+ = Also Lord Chancellor while the Lords + their legal status is under review

The Attorney General and the Solicitor General can also be called to sit in on a cabinet meeting; these are currently Lord Goldsmith and Harriet Harman respectively. Likewise, the Lords Chief Whip (Lord Grocott) can also sit when required.

All Cabinet members are referred to as Right Honorable.

There are currently 88 other junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries working both in the Commons and the Lords. A number of these are unpaid positions.

The Ministers of the Crown Act (1937) gave ministers a higher salary – along with the Chief Whip and the Leader of the Opposition in recognition of what they do. The 1975 Ministerial and Other Salaries Act set the number of paid Cabinet posts at a maximum of 22.

Each minister is head of a branch of government for which he/she is responsible.

Within that branch, he/she is advised by senior civil servants who have

experience within that field and in this sense will have an input into that department’s policies and can be seen as part of the executive of government. (This does not include the civil service as a whole who simply carry out government policy).

If things go badly in that department, a number of things could happen.

  1. i)            You could be sacked – but this might call into question the Prime Minister’s aptitude for appointing ministers in the first place.
  2. ii)           You could be part of a Cabinet reshuffle

iii)          You could resign

  1. iv)          You could sit out any problems and wait for them to blow over or be surpassed by another issue in another department.

Most recently, the Immigration Minister, Beverley Hughes, has been at the sharp end of the Conservatives and certain sections of the media for the perceived crisis in immigration regarding immigrants to Britain from Bulgaria and Rumania. At the end of March 2004, she made it plain that she would not resign despite calls for this from the Opposition. In the past when ministers have stated that they will not resign, they have! Shortly after her Commons statement that she would not resign, Beverley Hughes did just that.

Specific reasons for resignations are usually kept within the party, but it would be inconceivable to think that the senior members of the government had not voiced their views on the issue, which are usually expressed via the Prime Minister or the Chief Whip. A resignation speech in the House (a convention for departing ministers) usually states that they are putting the party above their own personal beliefs and that any errors made by that minister were not deliberate or an attempt to deceive Parliament.

There has been a trend of late to blame civil servants as opposed to government ministers. Senior civil servants were called to both the Kelly Enquiry in Parliament (a select government committee enquiry) and the Hutton Enquiry (along with government ministers). In the current immigration row, Hughes was still in her post when the civil servant ‘whistle-blower’ and the diplomat in Rumania were both suspended from their positions.

Whereas departmental issues can be passed along the line, personal indiscretions by ministers cannot. In 1997, one of the issues Blair was elected on was to have a government “whiter than white”. Nowadays, any sexual impropriety or any association with scandal usually leads to the resignation of the minister involved. With personal indiscretion there is nobody else to blame, while departmental issues allow the possibility to find others at fault. The two former high profile ministers who have quit in recent years are Peter Mandelson and Ron Davies; Mandelson for acquiring a mortgage/loan from Geoffrey Robinson and Davies for personal impropriety.

As a unit, the Cabinet is expected to give public support to government policy even if privately they did not support that policy – this is known as collective responsibility.

During the Iraq War of 2003, both Robin Cook and Claire Short were to resign from the cabinet as they did not support the government’s line and would not do so in public. In his resignation speech in the Commons, Cook was especially vehement in his criticism of the government ( a government he had days before been a senior member of).

The Cabinet is expected to defend policy on television and radio, in newspapers and in their constituencies (all ministers are MP’s). They might also have to do so at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons.

What is the importance of collective responsibility?

It shows that the Cabinet is unified and at one – a powerful image to the public at large. It is also a more powerful opponent for the Opposition. If they are fighting a divided Cabinet, they are fighting a weakened enemy. At the moment, the current Cabinet is united behind Blair and that unity is strength.

There are those who argue that collective responsibility is more a thing of the past now. Collective responsibility as a concept usually involves a full and open discussion of issues within a Cabinet so that all the arguments have been aired. By doing this even those who disagree with a policy will know the arguments for supporting it in public.

However, with the perceived growth of a Prime Ministerial style of government, with the implied belief that discussion is kept to a minimum, ministerial resignations have occurred as ministers would not be bound by what was portrayed as collective responsibility. Michael Heseltine did just this over the Westland issue during the time of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power.

Basically, when a Member of Parliament is promoted to the Cabinet, it is expected that he/she will support the person who has given them that privileged position – the Prime Minister. Occasionally, this ‘rule’ has been dropped when ministers have been allowed to express their own personal view over an issue. This is usually when the Cabinet discusses a very controversial issue and the whole theory of collective responsibility goes by the way and the Prime Minister risks mass resignations from his Cabinet if he tries to enforce collective responsibility. Such “agreement to differ” are rare and can be used when MP’s have a free vote in the House (such as over fox hunting). It is generally thought that if the model of Prime Ministerial government is becoming more dominant, then such agreements to differ will become more and more rare.

The last resignations from the Cabinet have not done Blair too much harm. Robin Cook and Claire Short have not been able to rally around them a core of anti-Blairites.

As the Cabinet stands, it seems a loyal entity behind Blair. Whether it is merely a rubber stamp or a collective body, will be decided by historians in the future. Membership of the Cabinet is a remarkably privileged political position and those in it tend to want to stay. This may well include agreeing with what the Prime Minister believes during Cabinet meetings and such a stance will continue to portray the Prime Minister as having the full support of his Cabinet. When a member of the current Cabinet resigns for purely family reasons (such as Alan Milburn – Health Minister), he/she rarely uses it as an opportunity to criticise Blair – quite the opposite. Here was a former member of the Cabinet publically applauding the Prime Minister. This by its very nature might cause some to question the stance and comments taken by those who leave the Cabinet for other reasons.

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