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Explainer

Cabinet

The cabinet is the senior decision-making body in government.

What is the cabinet?

The cabinet is the senior decision-making body in government. As described by the Cabinet Manual, the cabinet is "the ultimate arbiter of all government policy" and "decisions made at cabinet and cabinet committee level are binding on all members of the government." 

The cabinet is chaired by the prime minister and comprises the most senior ministers in government. Formally, it is the cabinet that governs the UK – although the role of the prime minister within the cabinet gives him or her particular powers over the decisions made by the cabinet.

The term ‘cabinet’ also refers to the meetings of the cabinet, as well as the body itself.

Who is in the cabinet?

The cabinet always consists of the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer and all secretaries of state (the most senior minister in each government department). Keir Starmer’s cabinet also includes the leaders of the Commons and the Lords and the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Some junior ministers also attend cabinet but are not full members. They are able to inform the debate around the cabinet table, but formal responsibility for decision-making sits with the secretary of state in their department. They sit furthest from the prime minister and (with the exception of the attorney general) receive a lesser salary than other cabinet ministers. Currently these attendees are:

  • Alan Campbell, chief whip
  • Darren Jones, chief secretary to the Treasury
  • Lord Hermer, attorney general
  • Anneliese Dodds, minister for development in the Foreign Office

The number of junior ministers attending cabinet has fluctuated considerably in recent years. After taking office in 2019, Boris Johnson invited 10 junior ministers to attend cabinet, before drastically reducing this number to four in 2020. By the time of his resignation, Rishi Sunak’s cabinet contained nine attending ministers. Keir Starmer’s cabinet contains just four attendees.

A chart from the Institute for Government showing the number of ministers attending cabinet between January 1990 and July 2024.

During cabinet meetings, civil servants from the cabinet secretariat attend to take minutes of the meeting and record any decisions. Some political advisers also attend, with the approval of the prime minister. However, neither officials nor political advisers take part in discussions.

How experienced is the cabinet?

The experience of cabinet ministers varies. Three members of Keir Starmer’s cabinet served as secretaries of state in the last Labour government: Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn and Ed Miliband. Others served as more junior ministers.

Some were chairs of select committees while Labour was in opposition. Yvette Cooper, the new home secretary, chaired the Home Affairs Committee and Rachel Reeves and Darren Jones, the new chancellor and chief secretary to the Treasury, have both chaired the business committee.

Almost all of the new cabinet shadowed their portfolio in opposition, with the exception of the culture secretary, Lisa Nandy, who was shadow international development minister, the minister for development, Anneliese Dodds, who had been party chair, and the new attorney general, Lord Hermer, who is new to parliament entirely.

A chart from the Institute for Government showing the ministerial, shadow and select committee chair experience of each current member of the cabinet where Yvette Cooper is the most experienced and Lord Hermer has not previously been a minister, shadow minister or select committee chair.

When and where does the cabinet meet?

The cabinet meets once a week when parliament is sitting, currently on a Tuesday morning. In most cases meetings take place in the cabinet room in 10 Downing Street.

Occasionally the cabinet may meet in other locations around the country. On 31 January 2020, it met in Sunderland to mark the UK’s departure from the EU.

For much of the coronavirus pandemic, the cabinet met remotely, using video-conferencing technology.

How does the cabinet make decisions?

The cabinet is supposed to be a space for private, frank discussion of issues. Ministers are allowed to disagree with each other. But once a position has been agreed, all ministers are expected to abide by that position or resign from office. This is known as collective responsibility. Some cabinet discussions are leaked to the press, but prime ministers often try to clamp down on this. When Boris Johnson became prime minister he issued a new edition of the ministerial code which stated clearly that ‘there must be…no leaking’.

Generally the minister responsible for a particular issue will introduce it to the cabinet before an open discussion takes place, with each minister putting forward their views on the topic in hand. The chair of a cabinet meeting – generally the prime minister – will summarise the discussion and any decisions, which will be minuted by the officials present and circulated to all ministers.

Some issues do not require the approval of all members of cabinet, as they are seen as less significant but still require agreement from multiple ministers. However, there is no definitive list of what issues require agreement at full cabinet. Issues that do not require agreement of the full cabinet may be discussed in a cabinet committee. These are groupings of specific ministers who discuss a particular subset of issues. Under the terms of collective responsibility, decisions taken in cabinet committee are nonetheless binding on all government ministers.

Many issues that require a decision in cabinet or in a cabinet committee are not actually discussed in a meeting. Instead, the ‘write-round’ process is used. The minister requesting a decision will write to all the members of the relevant committee and ask colleagues to agree with his or her proposal. If ministers do not agree to the proposed decision, they can write to the chair of the committee to explain their position. The cabinet secretariat may help broker an agreement if ministers disagree. If an issue cannot be resolved through writing, a meeting may be called to find a solution.

Is the cabinet an effective decision-making body?

Different ministers have different views on the effectiveness of cabinet. There is a general view that it rubber stamps decisions already made by key ministers, rather than being a forum for real discussion. But this can depend on the approach of the prime minister running the discussion. Jeremy Hunt, who served as a cabinet minister under both David Cameron and Theresa May, said that:

“Theresa May would often have a cabinet meeting where we didn’t know what she believed. In a way, that made the cabinet meetings more interesting because you thought that maybe what you were saying might have weight attached to it. Whereas in David Cameron’s cabinet meetings, after George Osborne had spoken, you basically knew what David Cameron and George Osborne thought and the matter was broadly over.”

Under Tony Blair, the cabinet was often seen as a simple rubber stamp for decisions made by the prime minister and his advisers; this approach to government has been referred to as “sofa government.”

Under previous administrations, the cabinet was the scene of greater discussion and disagreement. Michael Heseltine famously resigned as defence secretary in the middle of a cabinet meeting in early 1986 during the Westland affair.

The size of the cabinet can also make in depth discussion and considered decision making difficult. And while the prime minister is in charge of summarising decisions made in cabinet, it is other ministers who are generally in charge of implementing those decisions – they have the legal and financial powers to do so. Ultimately a decision being made in cabinet does not guarantee that anything will change in the real world.

What is the political cabinet?

The political cabinet is a meeting of ministers – and sometimes other politicians from the governing party – that is held to discuss political matters. The meeting may take place in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street as usual, but no officials will attend and the discussion will not be minuted. The political cabinet meets when the prime minister feels it is appropriate.

What is the shadow cabinet?

The shadow cabinet is the grouping of senior figures in the official opposition party (currently the Conservative Party) who ‘shadow’ secretaries of state. They are responsible for scrutinising the work of ministers and asking questions of them in parliament. The shadow cabinet meets at the discretion of the leader of the opposition, and it is an opportunity for the opposition to agree policy positions.

Shadow cabinet positions mirror those in the actual cabinet. But if the opposition party becomes the governing party after an election, there is no requirement for the leader to appoint his or her colleagues to the ministerial roles they were previously shadowing.

Topic
Ministers
Department
Number 10
Publisher
Institute for Government

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