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 the coalition had to defend these changes, even though they disagreed privately. This was because the rules of collective responsibility are weaker but still exist.
Finally, it could be argued that another major criticism of cabinet government that makes it no longer central to British politics is that the selection process is fundamentally flawed. The Prime Minister can strategically place his rivals in cabinet so that they are bound by collective responsibility to support him. Chamberlain left Churchill out of cabinet in the 1930s and paid the price – Churchill mercilessly criticised him from the back benches. Furthermore, Prime Ministers often try very hard to seem inclusive by making sure their cabinets are mixed in terms of gender and ethnicity (Sajid Javid is the only non-European member of Cameron’s cabinet). This could lead to the Prime Minister selecting people for the sake of diversity rather than picking who would be best for each job. It’s much easier to be sacked from cabinet than to be appointed – if you disagree with the Prime Minister it could spell the end of your political career. Surely this isn’t very democratic.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that the PM is not totally dominant and cannot ignore cabinet. Cabinet government has been a large part of British politics for centuries. We could trace the origins of cabinet government all the way back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, where the supreme power of the monarch was challenged. However, what we now recognise as cabinet government is largely due to the example set by Lloyd George’s World War One cabinet, which was smaller than usual and proved more effective. Cabinet makes the final decision on policy to be submitted to parliament. It gives legitimacy and authority to government decisions and can also provide crisis management during emergencies. With a cabinet government the Prime Minister is theoretically the first amongst equals: all members are collectively responsible for any decisions made. This develops a common government message for both the media and for Parliament.
The role of their cabinets in bringing about the premature departure of both Thatcher and Blair supports such a conclusion. Thatcher’s determination led to her becoming dominant. She increasingly ignored her Cabinet and was frequently abrasive towards them. She also began to ignore her party, believing electoral success made her untouchable. This aloofness led to her eventual demise as she lost the confidence of her Cabinet and her party. Ousted Ministers like Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Michael Hesseltine dealt the blows which would bring her down. She was forced to resign in November 1990, proving that Cabinet is still effective in questioning the Prime Minister.
An example of a Prime Minister who was not dominating at all is John Major, he took his role as first amongst equals seriously. After Thatcher’s dominance and dictatorial style, Major was much more inclusive and willing to involve the Cabinet. However, Major's Cabinet style was almost too inclusive. Collective responsibility was certainly lacking at times and he faced a number of serious 'leaks' and even some challengers to his power from John Redwood and Michael Portillo.
David Cameron came to office promising to restore the cabinet to its central role. Cameron came to office in May 2010 promising that decisions would no longer be made in secretive inner circles which bypassed the full cabinet. The cabinet would be restored to its textbook role at the heart of government. As Anthony Seldon has argued, 'Cameron was...clear that his premiership would see a return to formal cabinet government'. It could be argued that under the coalition that Cabinet was not presidential at all. As the respected Constitution Unit at University College London reported in mid-2011, 'Cabinet and its committees have been greatly revived under the new government'. For instance, specific and rigorous steps are taken to ensure that collective agreement is maintained: all papers for cabinet committees must state what has been done to ensure collective approval; the policy must be checked against the coalition agreement and the chair and deputy chair of the committee (always one from each party) must have signed the paper off.
Additionally, just because cabinet meetings are now less frequent it does not mean the Prime Minister ignores the views of his ministers. Cabinet meetings with fewer people can prevent the flow of government being disrupted. Also, the increasing use of committees doesn’t mean cabinet is in decline either. If an issue is discussed at length by the most appropriate committee this is a sign cabinet is functioning effectively. Some might argue that this is simply an easy way for the Prime Minister to avoid discussion and just pass whatever policies they wish, but when Thatcher tried to do this with her cabinet in the 1980s it led to high profile resignations and contributed to her eventual downfall.
The final point to consider when arguing that cabinet government remains central to the British political process is that the Prime Minister will want to minimise the risk of an embarrassing defeat. If his cabinet rallies against him it is likely the information would be leaked and the press would find out. Therefore it is in the Prime Minister’s best interest to make sure their ministers will genuinely support their policies. He will have assessed likely opposition and modified any aspects of the policy that are easily criticised. The cabinet prevents the Prime Minister from passing policies without considering the opinions of his colleagues.
In conclusion, cabinet government certainly faces an unknown future. This is the first time Cameron has had a 100% conservative cabinet, and he has stated that he will not be the leader after the next election. This could mean that cabinet will begin to get rebellious around 2018 if Cameron is still in power. However, cabinet government has many benefits and there is no talk in the political sphere of abolishing it any time soon.