Discuss the view that Cabinet no longer makes key decisions. (25 marks) There is evidence to suggest that cabinet no longer makes key decisions, and that the power rests with the Prime Minister alone. Traditionally the Prime Minister would be first among equals, chairing debates but only ultimately has the same say on issues as any other cabinet minister, when it came down to voting on the issue. Badgehot says that Cabinet has become just a ‘Dignified Institution’ in the 20th century, and many other political commentators have echoed this theory, saying the power now rests firmly in the hands of the Prime Minister.
There is also evidence to suggest that cabinet’s decision making power has been undermined in recent years, perhaps most prominently in the Blair New Labour government. This was clear in the debate over the decision to continue the Millennium dome project. At the same time that the Cabinet was debating whether or not to continue the project, because of the fact it was way over budget and wasting money, Tony Blair was outside giving an interview to the press, stating that the project would be maintained.
This shows how Cabinet could have made a collective decision about the issue, but would have been ignored regardless. This ultimately displays how the Prime Minister had the final say on Cabinet matters and how their decisions were merely advisory. Another example of Cabinet’s decision making powers becoming lessened is the infrequency of Cabinet meetings, and their increasing shortening lengths. Blair favoured Bi-laterals and Tri-laterals, and chose to speak to ministers on a 1-to-1 basis, bypassing Cabinet.
This was also claimed by the former Labour politician Mo Mowlam in her book ‘Momentum’ (2003), in which she claimed that ‘Blair makes decisions with a small coterie of people and doesn’t consult Cabinet’; for example the decision to surrender control of interest rates to the Bank of England in 1997, a decision made not by Cabinet, but by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Bi-laterals and Tri-laterals have become more prominent and numerous since 1997, reducing the amount of power and input that Cabinet has, and increasing the amount of power that the Prime Minister when it comes to key decisions.
It was also reported by Nick Cohen that an anonymous source had told him that these Bi-laterals were all ‘One-way traffic’. This kind of behaviour has led political scientist M. Foley to develop the theory of ‘British Presidency’. Blair also introduced Special Advisors such as Alastair Campbell who he preferred to discuss key policies and decisions with, as opposed to Cabinet. This has led to many political commentators to come to the conclusion that Cabinet is in place now merely as a ‘Rubber stamping’ mechanism used to give the green light to decisions that had been made elsewhere in parliament.