The Prime Minister dominates the Cabinet. How far do you agree with this view?

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Prime Minister Dominates Cabinet

While the Prime Minister is certainly the most visible and seemingly powerful member of Government, there is another element to make sure they don't have to govern alone. This is the Cabinet, a collection of up to 23 Ministers chosen by the Prime Minister.  This is a form of collective government with policy - Government policy should not appear to be made by the Prime Minister alone. The idea that the British Prime Minister is becoming more and more domiant was first voiced over 40 years ago. Given that Clement Attlee ignored most of his Cabinet in taking the decision that Britain should have atomic weapons, the idea could have been put forward even earlier. The idea itself is that the PM is no longer “primus inter pares” but now dominates Cabinet and the idea of collective cabinet government is effectively defunct.

Recent years have seen the growth of evidence to support such a conclusion with fewer and shorter cabinet meetings, the use of one-to-one meetings with ministers to determine policy, the growth of the Prime Minister’s office and the increase in special advisers being just some of the reasons cited. Blair was accused of having a presidential leadership style. Blair used his substantial majority of 160 to dominate Government; he could control Parliament with little opposition. Even back bench revolts had little effect. He doubled his own policy staff in Downing street to 200 showing his commitment to making policy within Downing street rather than through Cabinet. His Cabinets were reduced in time to 1 hour and he dominated the agenda. He would often make decisions in smaller cabinet committees. This was known as ‘sofa Government.’ He embarked on his own policy agenda with regards to issues such as Iraq and Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, many argue that collective responsibility is merely ‘collective obedience’ to the Prime Minister. Most people see the Prime Minister as the face of government. Prime Ministers can exploit the system by using cabinet less frequently and centralising power around himself and a few senior ministers, minimising the chances of his policies being contested. Cameron has also been accused of relying more on private advisors than his own cabinet. A lot of government policy has already been decided by the time it gets to cabinet, defeating the purpose. There have been recent cases of MPs resigning from cabinet due to not being able to accept collective responsibility: In 2003 the former Foreign Secretary of Blair’s government, Robin Cook, resigned over the 2003 Iraq war vote. The same applies to the shadow cabinet. In 2015 Yvette Cooper turned down a well-paid shadow cabinet post because she could not agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s policies.

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Another reason cabinet government could be in decline is the confusion that arises when a coalition government is in power, such as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that existed between 2010 and 2015. The cabinet was still dominated by the Cameron and remained the collective identity of the government, despite consisting of two very different factions. There were still ‘agreements to differ’ between coalition partners, but they did not apply to specific cabinet decisions: for example, some Liberal Democrat members did not support increasing nuclear power but still had to support cabinet decisions to build new power stations. All members of ...

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