Cabinet of the United Kingdom
It is a vital convention that all Cabinet members are accountable to Parliament, and so the cabinet is drawn primarily from members of the House of Commons with some from the House of Lords. Members must be available to answer questions in Parliament. Parliament cannot dismiss individual ministers, but the House of Commons controls the fate of the entire Government. If a vote of no confidence in the Government passes, then confidence must be restored either by a dissolution of Parliament and the election of a new one, or by the resignation of the Government collectively.
The Cabinet meets on a regular basis, usually weekly on a Thursday morning, notionally to discuss the most important issues of government policy, and to make decisions which they are bound to by "cabinet collective responsibility". This a convention that ministers must support the decisions made by the government. If a Minister cannot support government policy in public, they must resign.
The other convention ministers usually are bound by is "cabinet individual responsibility". This has two concepts: a minister is responsibly for their own personal conduct and also the running of their department. So if a minister's reputation is destroyed by a scandal (for example when it was revealed David Mellor had an extra-marital affair), they usually resign. If their department is involved in a scandal or revealed to be extremely incompetent, (for example the A-level marking scandal of 2002 when Estelle Morris was the minister involved), they resign.
In practice, and increasingly in recent years, Cabinet meetings have tended to be more concerned with the exchange of information and general discussion of the state of politics, with major decisions being taken by Cabinet Committees or in even more informal groups. Many Prime Ministers have a so-called "kitchen cabinet" consisting of their own trusted advisers which might include Cabinet members but are primarily made up of their staff.
In the United Kingdom's parliamentary system, the executive is not separate from the legislature. Moreover the executive tends to dominate the legislature for several reasons: the power of the Government Whips (to keep party members following the government line), the first-past-the-post voting system (which tends to give a large majority to the governing party), and the payroll vote (which means that members of the governing party who are on the government payroll, e.g. as junior ministers, would be dismissed if they voted against the government).
The combined effect of the Prime Minister's ability to control cabinet by circumventing effective discussion in Cabinet and the executive's ability to dominate parliamentary (i.e. legislative) proceedings places the British Prime Minister in a position of great power that has been likened to an "elective dictatorship" (a phrase coined by Lord Hailsham in 1976). The relative impotence of Parliament to hold the Government of the day to account is often cited by the media as a justification for their criticisms of the Government.
The official opposition party (the party with the second largest number of elected members of Parliament) is headed by a similar group called the Shadow Cabinet. In recent years the third largest party has also referred to its key figures as a Shadow Cabinet.
- In a controversial reshuffle on 12 June 2003, it was announced that the government intended to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and combine it with the posts of Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Wales in the new Department of Constitutional Affairs. Cabinet responsibility for Scotland and Wales was given to Alistair Darling and Peter Hain respectively, who have other responsibilities within the Cabinet. Although not the formal head of their departments, they will be referred to as Secretaries of State when acting in this capacity.