The notion is one that is widely argued and has a vast divergence of opinions. No one can argue however, that aspects of the modern cabinet are different from the eighteenth century origins. Although the cabinet has expanded since its routes, this is hardly surprising because now the government intervenes much more on aspects such as agriculture and health. Modern Prime Ministers have found it difficult to keep the cabinet size below 22 members. Attempts have been made to reduce it in size, for example, farmers may be offended they are not represented in government, as would the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.
In a response to the criticism that the cabinet is not a true representation of society and that the cabinet should remain small so decisions can be made decisively, some plans have been put forward. One idea is to reduce the size of the cabinet and having 'super ministers' who may look after several areas, such as defence, foreign policy and international development or education and culture. As well as making sure all interests are and feel represented. The Prime Minister also needs to give a large number of top jobs as a reward for loyal and able colleagues, and ensure that all sections of the party are represented at cabinet level.
By convention, all members of the cabinet have to be members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. A role may include the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the secretary of state. Cabinet members also need to be privy councillors and as a result, take an important oath to secrecy about all government business. They are all governed by a very strict code of conduct. If it is breached, the Prime Minister will require a resignation. Examples of this are Peter Mandelson and David Mellor.
People have criticised this because it does not give ministers of high positions to state any opposition publicly to government policy, even though they may have perfectly reasonable points about a key issue, they are forced to resign. For instance Robin Cook resigned from cabinet due to his opposition to the Iraq war, although the majority of people were supportive of war, there was a considerable number who opposed it, he spoke for them and had to resign as a result. The convention states that one decision has to be made by the cabinet, and then all of the cabinet have to support it fully, even if argued against in cabinet.
Resignation is the only alternative if you disagree with a collective decision. This 'collective responsibility' that PM's such as Thatcher used caused senior and well respected ministers to resign, namely Michael Hesseltine and Geoffrey Howe. The criticism made at the time was that the cabinet had no say in policy and had to follow the ruling of the PM or face resignation. There respected opinions were therefore not used in the government and was a tributary to the decline of the Thatcher government.
Major, however allowed much more public agreement among cabinet ministers and so bypasses this criticism. Michael Portillo and John Redwood kept their positions despite having reservations regarding the policy of Europe. However, the appearance of disunity was an important factor in the Conservative party defeat in the election of 1997. This is an important factor as to why Blair reverted back to the collective responsibility of Thatcher. The appearance of unity in the party is a reason as to the parties success in the two elections it has won.
The voting public likes to see unity in the party. Therefore, it would seem that the cabinets of the future are unlikely to criticise government policies. Supporters of the cabinet and those who feel it is an important government body would point to the many jobs carried out by the cabinet and cabinet members. It acts as a central clearing house for key decisions and 'fine tunes' polices so they can work. It plays a vital part in the co – ordination of all government activities – the heads of every major department and function in the UK are there, for example policing.
It is where major policies get endorsed by all members of the government and any crisis – be it war or fuel shortage – will be managed by some of its members. It has power in the sense that it would put the 'brakes' on a Prime Minister or a radical minister. It sets the agenda for government and referees disputes between departments. The cabinet ministers provide legislation for their area eg the Education Bill. They would also deal with emergencies affecting their area such as the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. They take full responsibilities for everything that happens in his or her area.
For instance when questions were raised in parliament about the performance of military equipment in the Kosovo conflict it was the defence secretary who had to deal with them, accept responsibilities for its failings and take steps to ensure they are not repeated. Arguably the most important reason for a cabinet is that it is the vital link between the party, parliament, the legal system and the government it joins all parts of the system together. Under Prime Ministers such as Macmillan and Callaghan, it was very much a decision making body.
Under Thatcher it declined some what and the role of the cabinet changed fundamentally. The key decisions are now made after consultation with individual ministers and advisors, under Thatcher and Blair, in particular there appears too many that there is little relevance them being there're despite the above roles. Increasingly, large amounts of business that were once done in full cabinet are being delegated to cabinet committees. For instance Thatcher sat up an Ad hoc committee during the miners strike. As it is smaller in number they are more efficient than a full cabinet.
They also have more time to consult experts, and there decisions are meant to be accepted by the cabinet. In rare cases, such as the Westland affair under Thatcher went to a full cabinet for a decision. This type of smaller groups making decisions is now regarded as many as the way forward in decision making, virtually rendering the cabinet dead, Blair is using this method more often now which could well precipitate the cabinet being dissolved. Blair prefers to make decisions and policy in discussion with individual ministers and policy advisors.
Many can understand why Blair has decided not to use the cabinet as a whole much. There are many flaws in ministerial responsibility; the blame is often handed out long after the minister has left office. We saw this during the BSE disaster where the relevant ministers resigned, retired or moved to different responsibilities. This is an example of where the convention of ministerial responsibility lacks 'teeth' in an important situation. The future for the cabinet looks bleak as they lose more and more members and general support.
It is my opinion, however that the cabinet plays and important part in government. It is important for a minister assigned to dealing with a certain situation so they can have an expert knowledge in this particular field and would therefore be best in any rising situation. I do feel that large cabinet meetings are often ineffective and little progress is made. I feel that the cabinet is not so much dying but just changing so policies can be made more efficiently and effectively with smaller groups in meetings.