There are several predominant roles of the Cabinet which include: devising major policy (although this is often stated in the manifesto before election, priorities have to be made, legislative ideas converted into practice and contextual circumstances to be accounted for); addressing unforeseen major problems (such as the current H1N1 'swine flu' outbreak); harmonising the actions of several departments (branches of the Government have to be able to co-operate and work together on mutually-affecting issues; disputes between senior members can also be aired in Cabinet meetings) and planning policy for the future, such as for defence, but often this is overlooked in order to deal with problems that are occurring at that moment in time. In the post-war period, there has been a dramatic shift in the structural make-up of the Government and often this has meant that there has been less accommodation for the Cabinet in its theoretical capacity.
Rather than presenting a proper forum for debate, it has been the case that since 1979, the main role for the Cabinet is to facilitate unity and collaboration between departments on policy and to decide on how these are to be implemented. Cabinet committees have become more significant in those 30 years, and time after time, they are the ones who actually formulate policy; after this, they submit their recommendations for policy proposal to the Cabinet who can either reject of accept their counsel – effectively making redundant the Cabinet's power to devise power alone, and marginalising their role in decision-making within the Government. Furthermore, there have been cases where informal chats and meetings (where minutes were not recorded) which add to the evidence that collective decision-making is being lost to instances of unilateral decision making by the PM.
Moreover, power is increasingly centralised around the Prime Minister and other senior ministers within the Cabinet which has been augmented by the ballooning powers of the Prime Minister's Office which enables him or her to supervise the direction of Government strategy and to implement more and more plans from their own direction, circumventing the need for a Cabinet evaluation. The utilisation of media also has its impact; there's a portrayal of the Prime Minister as the voice of the Government, so, when time comes that it is needed to give opinion, it is often the Prime Minister that is approached; they deal with this by giving the impression that not only are they in control of the Party, but of the Government as a whole. 'Spin doctors' such as Alistair Campbell – and more recently, Simon Lewis – facilitate the exposure of the Prime Minister and their perfectly-packaged opinions on strategy and policy, ensuring that he or she is presented in such a way to support this.
On the other hand, there is evidence that the Cabinet is although in a reduced capacity, not marginalised, but being streamlined in order to fit in with modern purpose. For example, taking major policy decisions has something that has precedent in Government since 1886 under the First Home Rule Bill, which presented by William Gladstone for consideration to the House of Commons, but was ultimately rejected by 341-311. Likewise, short cabinet meetings cannot be explicitly indicative of a Government that is being run like a dictatorship; two-day cabinet meetings similar to those under Harold Wilson would not be appropriate in the modern age where efficiency is needed in all respects.
Additionally, there is little to criticise in the way that cabinet committees operate; they provide the Cabinet with useful, relevant and prudent ideas on subjects that been researched before being presented. Although it's true that it presents the PM with a method in which to influence Cabinet decisions (because he or she often chairs important cmtts. ), often this can play against them in the future when they need to look to the Cabinet for support in order to re-enforce their own positions – as was the case with Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Given all that, it would appear that the Cabinet is not currently functioning to the extent that traditional understanding would have us think it should.
I utterly agree with the statement that the role of the Cabinet in decision-making has been deeply marginalised within recent administrations, and with that, I accept that the influence of the Cabinet is wholly and comprehensively linked to the context of the personality of the Prime Minister 'at the helm'. It is also true that Prime Ministerial power has acquired a new significance in recent years where they can forge decisions without the use of the Cabinet as a tool to manage or compass opinion. For instance, the EU has a significant function in top-level decision making insofar that it requires the divine attention of the Prime Minister alone, and not the Cabinet.
As an informal ambassador for the United Kingdom, it is the responsibility of the PM to negotiate deals which secure: EU funding for the UK's economy, EU partner countries' assistance in the Afghan War et cetera and in order for him to do this, considerable autonomy has to be granted. The same is true for other meetings in the recent past, such as the G20 Meeting in London where the PM held high-level talks with other wealthy nations in order to establish a trillion dollar deal to effectively 'rescue' the world economy. All of this has been at the expense of a Cabinet which needs to be reckoned with, otherwise, in times of desperate need, the Prime Minister will not find support at his or hers' weakest moments in their premierships.