British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 11 notes - Prime Minister and Cabinet

Return to full list of chapter notes.
  • The executive in Britain is a parliamentary executive. The Prime Minister, the head of government, is not directly elected by the people. His or her authority derives normally from being leader of a party which gains a parliamentary majority in a general election.
  • The key powers of the Prime Minister include appointments to government and public office, steering and organizing government, and giving leadership to the nation.
  • The Prime Minister is served directly by the Prime Minister’s Office, which has grown in size and importance but is relatively small compared with the staff of many other heads of government.
  • The Cabinet is chaired by the Prime Minister and consists of some 20 to 23 ministers. Most head major government departments. Most are members of the House of Commons, although a few (normally only one or two) may come from the Lords.
  • Outside the Cabinet are junior ministers, who mostly sit in the Commons, although a few may sit in the Lords. The whole government, including Cabinet and junior ministers, numbers around a hundred.
  • Alongside the Cabinet a complex system of Cabinet committees has grown up. Some of these are chaired by the Prime Minister, others by senior ministers. Junior ministers as well as Cabinet ministers may be members of Cabinet committees. Many decisions are taken in committees and not referred to Cabinet.
  • All members of the government are bound by the principle of collective responsibility. They are expected to support all government policy in public (or at least refrain from public dissent). Any member of the government who wishes to make public their disagreement with any item of government policy is required to resign their ministerial post.
  • The formation of a coalition Cabinet involves some new issues for the management of government but has not fundamentally altered Britain’s core executive system.
  • Although it is widely alleged that the power of the Prime Minister has grown at the expense of the Cabinet there remain important constraints on the exercise of prime ministerial power, which in any case has fluctuated markedly between and also within premierships, according to personalities and circumstances.
  • The reduction of Britain’s power in the world, globalization and the growth of multi-level governance have in any case markedly reduced the capacity of the British central executive to control events and deliver policy.