In British politics, the Cabinet is comprised of the most senior government ministers, most of them heads of government departments with the title "Secretary of State".
The cabinet is drawn entirely from members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and almost entirely from the former. Members of the cabinet are answerable to Parliament, and must be available to answer questions in Parliament, but Parliament can only dismiss them collectively.
The Cabinet meets on a regular basis, usually weekly, notionally to discuss the great issues of government policy, and to take decisions to which they are bound by "collective responsibility". In practice, and especially in the recent Blair Government, Cabinet discussions have tended to be cursory and major decisions have tended to be taken by sub-committees, including the so-called "kitchen cabinet", outside of Cabinet. Some of the members of such sub-committees are appointed by the Prime Minister and are unelected and unaccountable to Parliament.
In the United Kingdom's parliamentary system, the executive is not separate from the legislature. Moreover the executive tends to dominate the legislature for several reasons: the power of the Government Whips (to force party members to follow the government line), the first-past-the-post voting system (which tends to give a large majority to the governing party), the payroll vote (which means that members of the governing party who are on the government payroll, e.g. as junior ministers, hesitate to defy the Whips for fear of losing major portions of their income), and the reluctance of Parliament (especially the Commons) to assert its sovereignty.
The combined effect of the Prime Minister's ability to circumvent effective discussion in Cabinet and the executive's ability to dominate parliamentary (i.e. legislative) proceedings places the British Prime Minister in a position of great power that has been likened to an "elected dictatorship". The relative impotence of Parliament to hold the Government of the day to account has made it all the more important that the fourth estate (the press/media) criticise the Government.
The official opposition party (the party with the second largest number of elected members of Parliament) is headed by a similar group called the Shadow Cabinet.
- In a controversial reshuffle on 12 June 2003, it was announced, without prior consultation, that the government intended to abolish the ancient office of Lord Chancellor and combine it with the posts of Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Wales in the new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. This would leave Scotland and Wales without cabinet-level ministers in the Commons, so responsibility for those nations was given to Alistair Darling and Peter Hain respectively. They will use the titles of Secretary of State for Scotland and for Wales despite not being the heads of those departments, which are being absorbed into the new Department for Constitutional Afairs.
- Cabinet Office website
- Electronic list of ministerial responsibilities
- Her Majesty's Government
- Full list of Her Majesty's Government; which includes various under-secretaries and assistants.
- A BBC News guide to the current incumbents of Cabinet positions