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Explainer

Cabinet manual 

The cabinet manual is a document which sets out rules and procedures for the operation of government. 

The Cabinet Office in Whitehall, London
The cabinet manual was published by the Cabinet Office in 2011. It now acts as a guide for officials and ministers when considering constitutional issues.

What is the cabinet manual? 

The cabinet manual is a document which was published by the Cabinet Office in 2011, setting out rules and procedures for the operation of government. 

It took inspiration from another Westminster system with an uncodified constitution – New Zealand. Since 1979, New Zealand has written convention in its own cabinet manual. 

The UK equivalent was commissioned under Gordon Brown and completed under David Cameron. It is primarily intended to consolidate existing conventions and principles of government. 

What does the cabinet manual contain? 

The document covers a lot of ground – the monarchy, elections and government formation, the cabinet, ministers, the civil service, devolved administrations, the EU, finances and public information. For example, the cabinet manual sets out expected process in the instance of an inconclusive election result – including the process for a prime minister resigning and a new government coming into office. It also lays out procedure for changing prime minister in the middle of a parliament. 

Gus O’Donnell, then permanent secretary of the civil service, argued at the time that the cabinet manual “is not a constitutional innovation” because it merely put in place what had previously been set out in various official papers and in the cabinet secretary’s Precedent Book. It also includes conventions and practices described elsewhere, including in the ministerial code. It was intended to act as a clarifying device to formerly unwritten constitutional conventions. For example, the historic principle of collective cabinet responsibility is detailed in the manual.

How is the cabinet manual used? 

The cabinet manual now acts as a guide for officials and ministers when considering constitutional issues. Parliament and other select committees will use it as a guide and sometimes as an authority, on constitutional matters. It is also used by journalists and other commentators to manage discussion of constitutional areas of controversy.  

What is its constitutional status? 

The manual was not intended to codify the UK constitution. The government and civil service have explicitly said that it is only a guide to convention and not a constitutional work itself. Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary who drafted the manual, said it is a “work of reference that guides those of us who work in or with government”. 

But the manual is a publication from the UK government laying out a written interpretation of otherwise ambiguous conventions. It is possible that these interpretations will be viewed more as definitive rules than mere guidelines. It could gain a more explicit constitutional role if the courts chose to interpret it as a constitutional document.  

Are the constitutional interpretations in the cabinet manual disputed? 

The House of Lords Constitutional Committee highlighted some areas of contention. The manual details that the monarch has several new powers – to advise and be informed – than those set out by in earlier constitutional manuals including Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution. It also described the cabinet as the executive committee of the privy council, which has not historically been the case. Critically, it has also set out new expectations for the monarch and prime minister in government formation. 

Has the cabinet manual established new conventions? 

The cabinet manual is designed to set out new precedents and conventions as they are developed. However, convention is sometimes unclear and written guidelines can emphasise some aspects or favour new interpretations. The cabinet manual sets out some actions that have no historical precedent – it usually states where this is so.  

For example, in the guidelines on government formation, the manual states that after an unclear election result, a prime minister may stay in post unless it becomes clear that they cannot command the confidence of the house – then they must resign. This was not an established convention, but rather reflected the constitutional difficulties if a prime minister resigned before it was clear who could replace him or her. The convention was applied following the 2010 election, when Gordon Brown remained prime minister through the coalition negotiations but resigned when he felt it was clear that he could not remain prime minister and that David Cameron, with or without a coalition agreement, would be the most likely to command confidence. Some constitutional experts argue that this is not a clear convention and are critical of the development of the manual as a result.  

Will it be updated? 

The cabinet manual is not intended to be a fixed text and is expected to adapt to new constitutional developments. The document itself states that its content is “not static” and that new legislation, the evolution of convention and procedural change means that what it describes must necessarily change over time – and be “updated periodically”. 

Since the first edition of the manual was published in 2011 and has not since been updated, a new edition would likely reflect the changing politics of the last decade. This could include, but not be limited to, the reshaping of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the changing role of special advisers and – if the government’s agenda is met – reform of the civil service

In 2021, the cabinet secretary Simon Case told the House of Lords constitution committee that “any decision to update the cabinet manual must ultimately be for the prime minister”. 7 House of Lords Constitution Committee, Corrected oral evidence: Revision of the Cabinet Manual, 17 May 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/2191/html/  The committee claimed that an update to the manual was “well overdue” and should be conducted “as soon as possible”. 8 House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Revision of the Cabinet Manual: 6th Report of Session 2021 – 2022, the Authority of the House of Lords, 2021.

Topic
Ministers
Publisher
Institute for Government

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