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(˜The demise of Cabinet government?™, in L Robins (ed), Political Institutions in
Britain (1987), p 33), yet Cabinet remains capable of reasserting itself as ˜the
ultimate arbiter of all Government policy™ as it is declared to be in Cabinet
O¬ce guidelines on the Cabinet and its committees. Its political power may
most clearly be seen, perhaps, when its members judge that a Prime Minister is
approaching (or has passed) his or her ˜use-by™ date, as Mrs Thatcher discov-
ered in 1990 and as Mr Blair avoided rediscovering in the late summer of 2006
only by announcing that he will have resigned within a year. As more than
one commentator has put it, Cabinet government is as an elastic band: it can be
stretched but, as Mrs Thatcher™s fall showed, it can snap back sharply on those
who stretch it too far (see eg, Weller, ˜Cabinet government: an elusive ideal?™
(2003) 81 Pub Adm 701, 703).
(See further on the Cabinet system M Burch and I Holliday, The British
Cabinet System (1996); S James, British Cabinet Government (2nd edn 1999),
chs 3, 5, 6; G Thomas, Prime Minister and Cabinet Today (1998), ch 9; Foster,
˜Cabinet government in the twentieth century™ (2004) 67 MLR 753.)

(i) Neither ˜Prime Ministerial™ nor ˜Cabinet™ government:
the ˜core executive™ thesis
It may be better to see contemporary British government as an example of
neither Prime Ministerial nor Cabinet government. A number of political
scientists have in recent years advanced the thesis that to think in terms of there
being a ˜core executive™ may, instead, be a more accurate and helpful approach
to take. (See eg, Dunleavy and Rhodes, ˜Core executive studies in Britain™ (1990)
398 British Government and the Constitution

68 Pub Adm 3; R Rhodes and P Dunleavy (eds), Prime Minister, Cabinet and
Core Executive (1995); M Smith, The Core Executive in Britain (1999).) The ˜core
executive™ thesis recognises that power in the centre has grown, without over-
stating the power of the Prime Minister. It also avoids discussing these matters
as if the ˜decline™ in Cabinet government is something always and necessarily to
be lamented and is even, in some sense, improper or unconstitutional. Walter
Bagehot and Ivor Jennings were great constitutionalists. And they were great
exponents of Cabinet government as a model and as a practice. But we do not
necessarily have to follow them in this particular in order to stay loyal to the
The core executive thesis, in outline, runs as follows: that there is a small
number of agencies at the centre of the executive branch of government in the
United Kingdom that ˜ful¬l essential policy setting and general business coor-
dination and oversight functions above the level of departments™ (Burch and
Holliday, ˜The Blair government and the core executive™ (2004) 39 Government
and Opposition 1, 3). These agencies comprise the Prime Minister™s O¬ce,
the Cabinet O¬ce, the Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth O¬ce, the
central government Law O¬cers and o¬ces managing the governing party™s
parliamentary and mass support bases (see further M Burch and I Holliday, The
British Cabinet System (1996)).
The following extracts demonstrate the variety of advantages that proceeding
in these terms may bring to the analysis of contemporary British government.

Patrick Weller, ˜Cabinet government: an elusive ideal?™ (2003)
81 Pub Adm 701, 703“4, 716

We need to avoid the assumption that there is a zero sum game, that if prime ministers are
powerful then cabinet has ˜lost™ influence. Prime ministerial influence and cabinet govern-
ment are not polar alternatives . . .
We should not be overwhelmed by recent events, by being surprised by the manage-
ment and practices of recent prime ministers. The argument that prime ministers are
powerful and the cabinet has been relegated to become one of the ˜dignified™ parts of the
constitution is scarcely recent, even if it is constantly rediscovered. The explicit theoretical
debate began with John Mackintosh [The British Cabinet (1962)] who emphasized that ˜the
country is governed by the Prime Minister who leads, coordinates and maintains a series
of ministers™. The prime ministers on whose experience he drew were those who held
office in the 1940s and the 1950s or earlier; Lloyd George and Chamberlain are described
as dominant figures who almost did away with cabinet decision making. The thesis thus
predates the 1960s and 1970s, yet often these are the very times to which commentators
now look as a period when cabinet government flourished . . . Indeed, arguments about
dominant prime ministers can be found in the descriptions of the governments of Gladstone
and Peel . . .
399 Crown and government

Cabinet remains a useful forum for maintaining . . . collective support; indeed that still
seems the most persuasive reason for the regular meetings of cabinet, whether they are
seen as a focus group or a political forum. Indeed these traditional political functions of
cabinet “ exchanging information, taking the political temperature, geeing up ministers,
providing a sense of solidarity, setting the tone, emphasising the current issues and their
resolution “ can be undertaken almost independently of policy functions. Hence the fact that
often when big issues [come] to cabinet, the intent [is] as much to solidify support as [to]
determine any direction. Every government seems to still use cabinet for these political
purposes, as insurance and to lock in support.
But the pressure and complexity of modern government means that a weekly meeting of
busy ministers no longer seems the best way to make timely and sophisticated policy. So
prime ministers choose to work with the principal players in and around those regular meet-
ings. The weaknesses of cabinet are . . . well established: too much information, too little
time, too many busy people. Modern practices take this pressure into account by segmenting
and organizing the decision-making . . .
If that is an accurate diagnosis, then cabinet is simply evolving as it did a century ago.

Martin Burch and Ian Holliday, ˜The Blair government and the core
executive™ (2004) 39 Government and Opposition 1, 8, 12, 20“1

[C]hanges at the core under Labour mark the latest stage in the evolution of Britain™s still
functioning system of cabinet government . . . [T]he Blair reforms . . . reflect an acceleration
of pre-existing trends, with the result that the executive arm of government has been
substantially enhanced . . .
Labour™s first term saw an augmentation of resources at the core. The work of the PMO
[Prime Minister™s Office] and CO [Cabinet Office] was better integrated through, for example,
closer contacts between the Policy Unit and the secretariats, overseen by Chief of Staff
[Jonathan] Powell. The Treasury developed a more substantial role in monitoring public
expenditure and service provision . . .
[T]he Centre is far more substantial and integrated than in 1997. There are now 190 staff
at the PMO, compared to 130 in 1997, and more units in the Centre as a whole. At the same
time, the PMO and CO are more integrated and focused than before, with more staff working
to the PM. The overall outcome is clearer lines of command and direction, and a strength-
ening of the position of the PM and his aides. But also it is worth noting that this has been
coupled with a significant and expanding role for the Chancellor and his advisers in
overseeing delivery . . .
[T]he British core is increasingly coordinated and coherent, and increasingly proactive and
performance-driven. It also adopts a negotiating, collaborative style designed to maximise
its leverage over the rest of Whitehall . . . That it does so reflects a recognition on the part
of central actors that highly departmentalized government is not an ideal model for effec-
tive administration in an age when policy problems and solutions frequently cut across
departmental boundaries and fiefdoms.
400 British Government and the Constitution

Looking at the structures now in place, it is clear that the Centre has more capacity to play
a significant policy role. The extent to which that capacity is exploited, and with what success,
of course depends on the motivation and skill of key actors, and on the circumstances in
which they find themselves at any given moment in time. Furthermore, the notion, some-
times heard, that this amounts to the demise of cabinet government in Britain is something
that we seriously question. It is true that the positions of the PM and his aides have been
reinforced, but against that needs to be balanced an important and growing role for the
Chancellor in domestic policy. There may also be less collective government than under, say,
Major or Callaghan. However, each of those premiers was frequently crippled by crisis, and
they had little option but to adopt a collective stance. Compared with Thatcher, Blair does
not look markedly less collective in approach.
Pulling all this together, what we can say is that collective government still operates
fully from time to time, and partially (in smaller groups of ministers) all the time on specific
policy issues. In many ways, it simply has to, as the UK has neither a presidential
institutional structure nor presidential institutional capacity. Thus, although bouts of
prime ministerial dominance may infect particular governments now and then, they cannot
be sustained because the system is not in essence presidential and is not designed to
support them. The result is that British government exists, at the Centre, in permanent
tension between individual (PM) and collective (cabinet) government, veering by time
and issue from one tendency to the other. Under Blair, the resources of the PM
have been increased, but the balance of the system as a whole has not been totally
transformed. Thus, while there has clearly been substantial change, there has not been
a revolution. Rather, the changes that have taken place are in keeping with UK traditions
and practice.

If the foregoing analysis is correct, it is worth noting at this stage one
signi¬cant consequence. This is that parliamentary mechanisms and systems of
accountability are not based on the notion of the core executive, but continue
to be structured around particular government departments (see further
chapter 9). There is no House of Commons select committee, for example, on
the core executive (although the Public Administration Committee does
examine matters of public administration and government structure in the
round). While it does from time to time happen, it continues to be rare for select
committees to work together on policy problems that span di¬erent govern-
ment departments (for an example of such cooperation, see the joint inquiry
into arms exports conducted in the 1997“2001 Parliament by the Defence,
Foreign A¬airs, International Development and Trade and Industry
Committees). See further on these matters, chapter 9.

(d) Ministerial committees of the Cabinet
Much of the work on government policy that was formerly the business of the
Cabinet is now carried out in Cabinet committees (ministerial committees of
401 Crown and government

the Cabinet). Such committees have existed since the early nineteenth century,
but a fully organised committee system became established as a normal part of
Cabinet government only after the Second World War. Cabinet committees deal
with matters of continuing governmental concern such as economic policy,
home and social a¬airs, defence and overseas policy, local government and the
environment, and a new administration may retain much of the previous
government™s standing committee structure. Ad hoc committees are appointed
to deal with speci¬c and immediate issues of policy and are wound up when the
work entrusted to them has been completed. At any time there may be about
twenty standing committees and a variable number of sub-committees and ad
hoc committees. Under the Blair administrations there have been ad hoc
committees on, for example, food safety, youth justice, animal rights activists
and the Olympics.
The Prime Minister establishes and dissolves Cabinet committees, appoints
the chairmen and members and speci¬es the terms of reference. The Prime
Minister ordinarily chairs a number of Cabinet committees himself.

Rodney Brazier, Ministers of the Crown (1997), p 158

From the point of view of the departmental Minister, a Ministerial Committee can reduce
a problem to its essentials, and allow disagreeing Ministers to debate the key issues. With
luck he will be able to find agreement in the Committee, especially given that other Ministers
are acutely aware that they will bring matters to committees from time to time and that if
they are helpful to this Minister over his problem, he may reciprocate over theirs. From the
point of view of the Cabinet, this method of doing business should save its time: fewer
policy matters will be referred to it for discussion (although Committee decisions may be
submitted for ratification), and unresolved matters will only be considered to the extent
of concentrating on outstanding points of dispute. Given the delegation of ministerial
responsibility within departments, it is clearly sensible that junior Ministers should be
full members of some Ministerial Committees, and indeed they are “ although they are
outnumbered by Cabinet Ministers on them. Junior Ministers, however, are very well repre-
sented on many Ministerial Sub-Committees.

Cabinet committees consider some matters with a view to making a rec-
ommendation to the full Cabinet, but a great many questions are decided
by the committees themselves. Every Cabinet committee, said Richard
Crossman, ˜is a microcosm of the Cabinet™ (Inside View (1972), p 56); the
committees and their sub-committees ˜act by implied devolution of authority
from the cabinet and their decisions therefore have the same formal status as
decisions by the full Cabinet™ (Cabinet O¬ce guidelines 2003). These deci-
sions are often of considerable importance. For instance, it was a ministerial
committee that made the decision, in 1980, to acquire the Trident nuclear
missile system.
402 British Government and the Constitution

Ministerial Code (2005)
6.4. The Cabinet is supported by Ministerial Committees which have a two-fold purpose.
First, they relieve the pressure on the Cabinet itself by settling as much business as possible
at a lower level or, failing that, by clarifying the issues and defining the points of disagree-
ment. Second, they support the principle of collective responsibility by ensuring that, even
though an important question may never reach the Cabinet itself, the decision will be fully
considered and the final judgement will be sufficiently authoritative to ensure that the
Government as a whole can be properly expected to accept responsibility for it. When there
is a difference between Departments, it should not be referred to the Cabinet until other
means of resolving it have been exhausted, including personal correspondence or discus-
sions between the Ministers concerned.
6.5. If the Ministerial Committee system is to function effectively, appeals to the Cabinet
must be infrequent. Those who chair Committees are required to exercise their discretion in
advising the Prime Minister whether to allow them. The only automatic right of appeal is if
Treasury Ministers are unwilling to accept expenditure as a charge on the reserve; otherwise
the Prime Minister will entertain appeals to the Cabinet only after consultation with the
Minister who chairs the Committee concerned. Departmental Ministers should normally
attend in person meetings of Committees of which they are members or to which they are
invited. Unless they make it possible for their colleagues to discuss with them personally
issues which they consider to be important, they cannot “ except where their absence is due
to factors outside their control “ expect the Prime Minister to allow an appeal against an
adverse decision taken in their absence.

The Cabinet committee system was formerly not a publicly acknowledged
part of the constitution: governments did not announce the establishment or
even admit the existence of Cabinet committees. Mrs Thatcher let in some light
by disclosing the existence (but not the membership or responsibilities) of four
principal ministerial standing committees of the Cabinet. A greater concession
to open government was made in 1992 when Mr Major gave details of the mem-
bership and terms of reference of sixteen standing ministerial committees and
ten sub-committees; updated lists have been published subsequently. Details of
the proceedings of the committees are not made public.
The structure of Cabinet committees was as follows in 2006.

Ministerial Committees of the Cabinet, 2006
Ministerial Committee on Anti-Social Behaviour
Chair: Prime Minister
Terms of reference: ˜To develop the Government™s policies on anti-social
behaviour and respect and to monitor delivery™.
Ministerial Committee on Asylum and Migration
Chair: Prime Minister
Terms of reference: ˜To consider the impacts of migration; and co-ordinate and
oversee delivery of the Government™s policies on asylum and immigration™.
403 Crown and government

Ministerial Committee on Civil Contingencies
Chair: Home Secretary
Terms of reference: ˜To consider, in an emergency, plans for assuring the
supplies and services essential to the life of the community and to supervise
their prompt and e¬ective implementation where required™.
Ministerial Committee on Constitutional A¬airs
Chair: Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons
Terms of reference: ˜To consider strategic issues relating to the Government™s
constitutional reform policies including House of Lords reform and issues
arising from devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland™.
Ministerial Committee on Intelligence Services


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