Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.-Plato
The Cabinet is the committee at the centre of the British political system and is the supreme decision-making body in government. Every Tuesday during Parliament, Secretaries of State from all departments and some other ministers meet in the Cabinet room in Downing Street to discuss the big issues of the day. Meetings are currently attended by 22 paid ministers and one unpaid minister appointed to Cabinet and six other invited ministers and peers.
Government Cabinets have met in the same room since 1856, when it was called the Council Chamber. The Prime Minister chairs the meetings, selects its members, and also recommends their appointment as ministers by the Monarch. The Secretary of the Cabinet is responsible for preparing records of its discussions and decisions.
The modern history of the Cabinet began in the 16th Century with the Privy Council, a small group of advisers to the Monarch. Sir Robert Walpole the first Prime Minister, held occasional meetings of the King’s Ministers – Cabinet – but not in its modern form.
The 1832 Reform Act emphasised the need for government to have the confidence of Parliament as well as the Monarch and for it to act coherently.
William Pitt (1783-1801) established the right of the PM to ask ministers to resign. So the conventions of collective Cabinet responsibility and Prime Ministerial control developed. This enabled Ministers to stand together against Parliament under clear leadership.
Up to 1916, a letter written by the PM to the Monarch provided the only record of Cabinet decisions. In 1916 the ‘War’ Cabinet Secretariat and the post of Cabinet Secretary was created. The basic system has survived since then.
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007, the regular day the Cabinet meets was changed from Thursday to Tuesday. While the Cabinet had met on a Thursday since 1963, it had met on other days before. Between 1955 and 1963, Cabinet meetings were held on both Tuesdays and Thursdays. From 1945 to 1955, they were held on Mondays and Thursdays, and before the Second World War, they were usually held on Wednesdays.
Mr Brown chose to move the meetings to Tuesday because Parliament does not meet until the afternoon that day, so members would not have to leave longer meetings early because of Commons engagements.
Powers of Cabinet
The Cabinet has no legal powers - those powers are held by Secretaries of State – but it has collective responsibility to Parliament so all members are bound to support Cabinet decisions even if they were not present.
Much of the work of Cabinet is delegated to Committees. The Prime Minister decides who sits on the Committees and what they are responsible for. Some of the Committees exist for short periods to deal with a particular issue.
Since 1992 the membership of Cabinet Committees has been published. Decisions taken in Committee have full Cabinet authority and may not be brought to full Cabinet.