Discover The Facts

The Government

This section contains non-partisan factual information about the The Government. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions

Has Prime Ministerial authority been allowed to grow unchecked?

There is little to prevent a Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority doing whatever he wants.  It is often said that the British Prime Minister has mutated into a de facto President.  However democracies with presidential systems also have strongly entrenched constitutional checks on executive authority.  In the absence of such checks, some argue that the modern Prime Minister’s office is in aberration with excessive powers.

Others take a less pessimistic view and point out that even apparently powerful leaders have been toppled once they start to lose sight of the sentiments at ‘grass roots’ level (for example the defeat of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative party in 1990).  The informal mechanisms for reigning in the leader are arguably still operative and effective. The fact that the current government is a coalition of two political parties may also involve limits on the powers of the Prime Minister. The political need for the Prime Minister to present a facade of unquestionable authority might disguise limitations in place behind the scenes.


Has the Government of Britain become a ‘sofa government’?

Prime Ministers commonly rely on a very small circle of close advisors, who are commonly neither elected politicians nor career civil servants. Sometimes these advisors become well known personalities in their own right – Alastair Campbell (who was given the power by Tony Blair to issue directions to civil servants) is an example – but many are not public figures.  It is arguably these unelected groups which hold the real executive power in modern Britain.  Some argue that the number of special advisers should be limited, to ensure that the decision-making process is handled by those that have been elected to this post, rather than by ‘professional’ policy-makers.  Others take the case further, arguing that special advisers should not be employed from the public purse, especially in view of the fact that their appointment is overtly party political.

However, the contrary view is that, in the absence of any requirement for those standing for election to have any specific expertise, it is essential that Ministers have the ability to access the advice and talents of third parties. In the light of the increasing complexity of many of the issues dealt with at Ministerial level and the variety and scope of issues under discussion, the Prime Minister needs this sort of specialist input, it is argued, in order to be able to judge the recommendations made to him by the various departments of Government.

For more on special advisers


Does the doctrine of Collective Cabinet Responsibility have any real meaning?

Until the middle of the twentieth century, many constitutional theorists conceived the Cabinet as a collegiate executive and the Prime Minister as only a ‘first amongst equals’.  Some think that this is not a tenable description of cabinet government today. Up until the end of the last Labour Government, it was not clear how many policy decisions were actually made, or even seriously debated, in Cabinet meetings.  It has been argued that the Commons has become a rubber-stamp for executive decisions and in turn the Cabinet is merely a rubber-stamp for decisions taken by the Prime Minister and his personal advisors.

How the dynamics of Collective Cabinet Responsibility have changed while we have a Coalition Government remains open to question. There have already been areas set aside for agreed differences, and it has also been agreed that no Liberal Democrat Minister can be removed without the consultation of Deputy PM Nick Clegg, however some debates (particularly involving Chris Huhne MP) have given the Cabinet the appearance of being seriously divided.

Under the doctrine of collective responsibility, all Cabinet members are jointly accountable for Government decisions.  It can be argued that for most Cabinet members, this is responsibility without power.  Should the Cabinet therefore have greater powers to insist on being consulted on major decisions?  Should it even have the power to veto decisions of the Prime Minister?  Or is strong government more important than the requirement for consultation and accountability?  Would a Prime Minister be ham-strung if he always had to seek consent before making his position clear on controversial matters? 

Or perhaps, does the extent to which Cabinet consultation takes place depend on the strength of position of the Prime Minister at the time?


What is the appropriate relationship between the media and politics?

In a speech in November 2009, Baroness Buscombe, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, stated that the press has 'filled the democratic deficit in recent years.'  She also said that 'the freer journalists are to criticise, scrutinise, and analyse, the more trustworthy institutions become. That is because without freedom of the press, there is no real accountability to the public.'

There are few who would disagree with the principle that a free press is fundamental to a functioning democracy. But what is the relationship between our politicians and the media?  

In the discussion around the relationship between media chiefs and policy-makers considerable discussion has surrounded the declarations of support given by the Sun newspaper, which elected to back the Conservatives prior to the 2010 election, having made the switch to supporting Labour in the 1990s. Because the Sun comes from the stables of News International, which controls a considerable share of the British media, the value of its patronage is all the more important, and a strong incentive to political parties to act according to the wishes of NI's leading figures.

Some feel that the Government of the day is too easily influenced and distracted by the views of the media and that trivial matters are allowed to ‘hijack’ the attention of our senior politicians, for example when Gordon Brown expressed a view as to the health of Susan Boyle, a contestant on a television talent show. 

During the Blair era, it was common for the Prime Minister’s office to leak policy initiatives to selected journalists, sometimes before even the relevant Government Minister had been informed. Access to information for journalists was conditional on sympathetic coverage.

The media can and does hold politicians to account for their misdeeds – the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the expenses scandal is ample proof.

The media is important to democracy, and benefits from being close to the centres of power, but this same closeness creates opportunities for corruption. Where should the balance lie?


Should voters have a bigger say in the selection of the Prime Minister?

Twice in the last twenty years, the Prime Minister has been an MP who did not fight a general election as leader of his party - John Major and Gordon Brown.

It seems anomalous that the PM can be appointed without any electoral endorsement.  So are we voting for a party and what it stands for, or for an individual and the vision of that individual?  Those who argue against introducing some sort of presidential style electoral system point out that continuity of the ideology of the ruling party is more important that the identity of the person who is the leader of that party.  They also point to the flexibility of our existing system which avoids the need for a general election if an issue arises which forces a Prime Minister to stand down.

It can also be argued that the introduction of presidential style elections is not the right route for British politics to take: the point should be to scale down the powers of the Prime Minister, to redress the balance by strengthening the powers of the Commons and to reduce the power of the Government as a whole.  This would involve unpicking many of the departments of Government which now exist.  Is this desirable or even feasible?


Does Ministerial responsibility have any meaning in today’s society?

Traditionally, government Ministers were responsible for the errors and misjudgements of civil servants in their departments.  If the matter was sufficiently serious, the Minister was expected to resign, even if  he was not personally at fault.  In recent decades, responsibility for the implementation of government decisions has increasingly been devolved to a diverse range of state agencies which are portrayed as operationally independent.  Today, little remains of the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility: Ministers publicly blame civil servants and the heads of state agencies when administrative shortcomings are exposed.  The argument is that to expect Ministers to take responsibility when the departments they head are large and complex is unreasonable. 

On the other hand, many commentators ask, if Ministers, who ultimately are the people with the power to change the way decisions are made and the mechanisms that guide decision-making, are not prepared to take responsibility, then who will answer to the taxpayer for money wasted, or to wronged parties for injustices committed against them?



Last updated May 2011


What you need to know

In Britain the term the 'Executive' refers to three bodies - the Government, the civil service and the Monarchy. 

The government of a state is like the management of a company.  It runs the state on a day to day basis and makes important decisions about the direction of the country.  The political party (or group of parties) which gains a majority of the seats in the House of Commons is invited by the Queen to form the Government. 

The British Government, headed by the Prime Minister and supported by the Cabinet, has a large number of broad, undefined, mostly unregulated powers; in practice there is no easy mechanism to challenge powers or hold the Government to account in their exercise.

The Government is scrutinised by Parliament in the House of Commons and House of Lords, but the effectiveness of that scrutiny can vary according to the size of the Government's majority in the House of Commons.  In recent years, the House of Lords has become more critical.  There are also a variety of intra- and extra-parliamentary institutions such as select committees, various watchdogs, the courts and of course the media which attempt to hold the Government accountable with varying degrees of success.

Why does it matter?

The traditional picture of the British constitution is that Parliament is supreme: the Executive is drawn from Parliament and therefore is accountable to Parliament.  This assumption is no longer reliable because the leaders of the political party which makes up the Government can easily dominate Parliament if they holds a large majority of the seats in the House of Commons. 

The Civil Service is bound to implement policy determined by the Government, and a strong Government can find means to by-pass or neuter the effect of Parliamentary scrutiny.  The powers of the Monarch are in practice entirely vested in the Government.

This raises the question of how ‘democratic’ our system of government really is, how effective are its checks and balances, and how the public can be protected from an 'over-mighty' Executive.

What are the key dates?

The following are some of the key dates relevant to the British Government.



Sir Robert Walpole appointed First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons; often seen as  the ‘first’ Prime Minister of the UK
The beginning of the convention that the Prime Minister should be chosen from the House of Commons, not the House of Lords
Creation of Cabinet Office and Secretariat
The Crichel Down Affair—Sir Thomas Dugdale resigns, accepting responsibility for the actions of his department’s civil servants
Questions for Procedure for Ministers published—the forerunner to the Ministerial Code
The Nolan Report published, setting out the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership
The Scott Report raises questions about the current status of ministerial responsibility after it finds that government ministers failed to tell Parliament the truth about arms deals to Iraq
The Ministerial Code published
devolution of large areas of government to legislatures and national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

What are the key facts?

Although the Government is drawn from Parliament, in practice they are functionally separate.  Parliament consists of the House of Commons (comprising all the Members of Parliament who have been successfully elected following a general election) and the House of Lords (comprising the unelected peers). The political party which gains the largest number of elected Members of Parliament in a general election is invited by the Queen to form the Government. More

In the event that no single party has as overall majority of Members of Parliament (a ‘hung parliament’), the Queen will either invite one party to form a ‘minority government’ or will invite a group of parties to form the Government together, a ‘coalition’ government. 
The political parties other than the party which forms the Government are together termed the ‘Opposition’ or the opposition parties.

The Government consists of the Prime Minister, his Ministers - of whom the most senior make up the Cabinet (the others being ‘outside’ Cabinet) - and the whips.  In total, the Government numbers over 100 MPs and peers. More

A current list of the Government can be found here

As a collective body the government has access to a vast range of powers and resources: in particular, the royal prerogative, statutory powers, and the various departments of state, staffed by civil servants.


The Prime Minister


The Prime Minister is the Queen’s chief adviser, and presides over the Cabinet.  The function of the Prime Minister is to provide leadership, direction and coherence to the government.  The Prime Minister is often said to be the first amongst equals, although many now think the Prime Minister has become a great deal more powerful than other Ministers.


Appointment of the Prime Minister

Following a general election, when the Queen invites the political party or parties who have the 'confidence' of the House to form the Government, it is the leader of the dominant party who is approached first by the Queen and it is the leader of that party who will therefore become the Prime Minister.  It is up to the political parties themselves to decide who will be their leader, but each party has its own method of selection. More

See more on the selection of the leaders of the main political parties: the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democats
The Prime Minister is not, therefore, directly selected or elected by the voting public, as only those voters who are registered to vote in the constituency for which the Prime Minister has stood in the general election will have had the opportunity to vote on his election.  More
for more information on the electoral system go to Electoral Process


By convention the Prime Minister is drawn from the Commons: the last time a Prime Minister came from the Lords was in 1902. However, there is nothing which prevents a political party from choosing a member of the House of Lords as the leader of the party, so it is technically possible for the Prime Minister to be unelected.

If the Prime Minister ceases to be leader of his political party he loses his office as Prime Minister, but this does not automatically trigger a new general election. More

In 1990 differences within the Conservative Party led to a challenge of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, which resulted in John Major being elected as leader and assuming the role of Prime Minister.  Tony Blair voluntarily stood down as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party in 2007, when Gordon Brown assumed those roles, following an uncontested leadership election within the Labour Party.


Powers of the Prime Minister

The Prime Minister’s Office provides the Prime Minister with his or her own set of resources and is divided into three sections — policy and government; communications and strategy; government and political relations. The expansion of Number 10, along with the broad range of powers the Prime Minister personally holds, have led to concerns that British government is becoming more ‘presidential’.

Every Prime Minister needs to have a degree of personal authority over the Government, but the powers of the British Prime Minister are exceptionally wide.  They stem from the royal prerogative, constitutional convention and political practice. They are not found in statute.  These powers include:

Power of patronage

The Prime Minister is able to appoint (and dismiss) a large number of figures to public office, including Ministers. There are no guidelines as to how these powers of appointment ought to be exercised, even though the appointments may confer upon those selected considerable powers and salaries. In general these powers will be subject to political pressures, for example under the present Coalition Government there will have to be concessions to the Liberal Democrat party over appointments. More

Prime Ministers also have the power to advise the Monarch on various public appointments, such as the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, the Chairman and governors of the BBC, and the Governor and Directors of the Bank of England.

Similarly, the Prime Minister has the power to appoint life peers to the House of Lords and to determine the number and timing of such appointments.  More

Upon his accession to power in 1997, Tony Blair controversially appointed a large number of Labour life peers, to redress the political balance in the House of Lords away from the Conservatives.  Since gaining power in 2010, the Coalition has appointed many more peers in an attempt to redress the balance.

Power within Government

The Prime Minister largely decides which of his Ministers will form the Cabinet.  He summons meetings of the Cabinet, determines the Cabinet agenda, chairs Cabinet discussions and sums up what has been decided, he can even choose to bypass the Cabinet altogether. 

Furthermore, the Prime Minister determines the mechanics of government; he can create, merge, abolish or modify any and all Government departments, deciding which individuals or Ministers have which responsibilities and powers.  There are no rules or procedures governing the manner in which the Prime Minister does this, or any limits on the number and frequency of such changes. More

In June 2003, Tony Blair’s intention to abolish the position of Lord Chancellor was announced by press release.  There was no prior consultation with any of the ‘usual channels’: the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Queen or the Lord Chancellor himself.  The abolition proved more problematic than other ‘reshuffles’ because the office of Lord Chancellor, unlike most other Ministerial positions, is created by statute and statutory intervention was therefore necessary.  Subsequent legislation transferred most of the powers of the Lord Chancellor to the Minister of Justice, head of the newly created Ministry of the same name.  For more information see Constitutionalism and the Abolition of the Office of Lord Chancellor, Dawn Oliver.

Cabinet ‘reshuffles’ are also a prominent feature of British Government.  There are many reasons why a Prime Minister may reshuffle his Cabinet (moving Ministers from one job to the next, whether or not new departments are created) including ‘personnel management’ where Ministers are moved in order to make sure that their skills are deployed as efficiently as possible, implementation of new policy or the removal of dissent from within the Cabinet. More

For example, in 2001 Robin Cook was removed from office for being too pro-Europe.
Whatever the motivation for a reshuffle, the fact that it rests entirely within the gift of the Prime Minister underscores the power of the Prime Minister as an individual. More
For more on this see The timing of Cabinet Reshuffles, R. K. Alderman and J. A. Cross


Power within Parliament

The Parliament Act 1911 provides that the maximum length of any Parliament is 5 years, so general elections must happen at least every 5 years.  Apart from this general restriction, currently there are no provisions which specify the way in the which the date of a general election is to be determined.  The Prime Minister has the power to dissolve Parliament at a time of his choosing, which means that the Prime Minister has the power to determine the date of the next general election (as long as it occurs no later than 5 years after the previous election). In practice, this gives the Prime Minister and his political party an advantage over the other parties.  More

The advantage arises because they are able to start preparing for an election before the other parties and because they can take advantage of public sentiment being in their favour or against the opposition.  It also enables the incumbent party to turn external events to their political advantage.  The Prime Minister is entitled to exercise this power without reference to any other party, but in practice it is usual for the Prime Minister to consult at least Cabinet.  Preparation for a general election is no small matter for political parties, involving local and national campaigning and the marshalling of physical and financial resources.  For more information on this see here
However, the Coalition Government have introduced a bill which will impose fixed term Parliaments with five-year terms, thereby removing this power.


Power within the Party

The Prime Minister has the power to choose the Whips - the party officers who help ensure party discipline both within the House of Commons and in the House of Lords. Whips not only ensure loyalty to the party line within their own parties, they also communicate with their opposite numbers in other parties through the ‘usual channels’.  More

The ‘usual channels’ is the term used in Parliament to describe the relationship between the whips of the various political parties.  Some business in the house requires a certain amount of cooperation, for example as to timing and scheduling.  The usual channels are also used to discuss proposed membership of committees and other matters relating to the routine business of the Houses.   The role of the Whips is accordingly influential.

The Prime Minister is also the principle spokesman for his political party, by virtue of his position as leader of the party.

Power on the national and international stage

The Prime Minister is the principal representative of Britain in the international political arena and in this capacity has direct access to other world leaders and heads of state.  The Queen is the Head of State and fulfils an important diplomatic role. More

for more on the Queen as Head of State go to Monarchy
However, it is the Prime Minister who has the power to engage in international political negotiations.  More
For example, relations between the member states of the European Union.


The power to declare war rests with the Prime Minister alone.  He can consult the Cabinet or Parliament, but he is not bound to do so. More

Tony Blair asked parliament’s approval to commit troops in both 2002 (Afghanistan) and 2003 (Iraq) but did so voluntarily and was at pains to make clear that he did not regard this as setting a binding precedent.  In one of his first announcements after entering number 10, Gordon Brown said he intended to transfer many of the Prime Minister's traditional powers to Parliament, including the power to declare war.  Mr Brown said the exclusive exercise of such powers had "no place in a modern democracy".  The Coalition has since made no such pledge.  Although reserving the power to Parliament would appear superficially more ‘democratic’, detractors point out that in times of crisis rapid executive decisions are made.  For more see


Limitations on the powers of the Prime Minister

Notwithstanding the apparently sweeping powers of the Prime Minister, there are nevertheless limits on that power in practice.  First and most crucial is the support of his own party.  A so-called backbench revolt can make it impossible for a Prime Minister to press home his policies.  More

Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major fell victim to backbenchers.  John Major suffered a revolt over his support for developing greater links with Europe.  By the time he called an election in 1997 the party was in such disarray that it suffered its biggest electoral defeat in recent history.

When disaffection sets in with backbenchers, moves may start within the party to force a leadership election, with matters reaching a head once willing opposing candidates come forward.

The unbridled use of power is also controlled by virtue of the fact that, as the most prominent politician in the country, the public will generally hold the Prime Minister exclusively responsible for any major mishap that occurs whilst he is in charge.  More

For example Edward Heath was seen as responsible for the miners’ strike in 1974, Margaret Thatcher for the poll tax riots.


The media acts as a further check on the powers of the Prime Minister and the Government.  More

For example the MPs' expenses scandal woud never have become the major issue that it is had it not been for the exposure in the press.  See the remarks of Baroness Buscombe

The fact that the UK now has a coalition government may add further complications to the position of Prime Minister. For instance, David Cameron is no longer able to solely determine the composition of his cabinet, or remove Liberal Democrat ministers, without consultation with the Deputy Prime Minister. In other countries with coalition governments, the rate of ministerial turnover drops—that is, fewer ministers are removed from their posts because of the need to satisfy coalition partners. In practise this should place more power in the hands of ministers.


Ministers are the politicians appointed by the Prime Minister who hold senior office within the Government, such as head of one of the Government departments or of a division within those departments.  Most ministers come from the House of Commons, but some are peers who represent the Government in the House of Lords. 

Not all Ministers sit in the Cabinet.  Below Cabinet level, peers are often appointed as Ministers because of their expertise, because they can represent the Government in the House of Lords, and because as a Minister free of constituency duties, peers are free to carry on government duties while the other departmental ministers are campaigning. More

In the last Labour government the most prominent peer in Cabinet was Lord Mandelson, who was First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, Lord President of the Council and Minister of Information.  Margaret Thatcher appointed Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary in 1979-1982.

See: House of Commons Library Standard Note List: “Peers in the Cabinet” See Philip Norton Parliament in British Politics (second edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005).

By law there can be no more than 95 paid Ministers in the House of Commons. There is no limit on the number of Ministers in the Lords, but there are usually not more than 20, or about one-fifth of government. More

There is a hierarchy of Ministers (in descending order of status):

Secretary of State: these are the most senior ministers, and are responsible for the overall workings of a department.

Minister of State: often responsible for a particular area within a department

Parliamentary Under-Secretary: often responsible to a Minister of State in a particular area

Parliamentary Private Secretary: have an ambiguous status, and are usually not treated as ministers; they have a variety of tasks but one key role is to keep an eye on the mood of the backbenchers

Most Secretaries of State run a department: beneath them they have 2-3 Ministers of State, 2-3 Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and 1-2 Parliamentary Private Secretaries. More

There is some concern about the growth of the number of Ministers.  While numbers of Ministers in Cabinet have not changed, the numbers of those outside Cabinet have more than doubled over the 20th century.  This has been a response to meet the demand of increased government activity, but the effect of more ministers is to expand the dominance of government over the majority party in Parliament.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 30 Ministers outside Cabinet; by 1997, there were 80. Similarly, in 1901, no department had more than one junior minister attached to it. See Philip Norton Parliament in British Politics (second edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005).

The status and number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is also a concern. Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not considered official ‘ministers’ as they are unpaid, but by convention they are expected to vote with the party on all matters, like ministers.  At the end of the Brown Governement there were about 40 PPSs, all chosen by their respective Secretaries of State.  There are also unpaid Ministers, whose number stands currently at 10. See the House of Commons briefing paper on “Limitations on the number of Ministers and the size of the Payroll vote”

Ministers from outside Parliament

Gordon Brown, on the back of proclaiming that he would build a ‘government that uses all the talents’ appointed eight junior ministers with no parliamentary experience by putting them in the House of Lords. PASC (The Public Administration Committee) accepted this as long as each appointment was justified to Parliament. The Procedure Committee have since stated that in their view Secretaries of State in the upper chamber should face a Commons question period in Westminster twice in each parliamentary session.

The Machinery of Government



The Government is divided into departments, usually organized by subject and function.  The departments are a major source of state power.  Currently, there are 24 departments, staffed by civil servants who are required to be politically impartial and usually, but not always, headed by a Secretary of State. More

A full list of government departments can be found here

In theory, the Minister determines policy and makes decisions, while civil servants advise the Minister and implement policy; in practice this distinction is often blurred, which may cause problems for the convention of ministerial responsibility, as discussed below. 

Government departments can be created, amalgamated, scrapped or reorganised by the Prime Minister at any time.  More

For example The Ministry of Justice was established on 9 May 2007.  It brought together the former responsibilities of the Department for Constitutional Affairs (itself only created in 2003) with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) from the Home Office and the trilateral Office for Criminal Justice Reform.  In 2008 The Prison Service and Probation Service were brought together in a "streamlined headquarters", NOMS which was established only 3 years before was disbanded.  Frequent reorganisations, especially when they involve relatively recently established departments, attract criticism for being inefficient and costly.


Cabinet and Cabinet Committees

Cabinet is a creature of convention, and has no formalised legal powers; but it is, in theory at least, the most important decision-making body in British government.  Cabinet is intended to be where major government decisions are debated and ultimately determined.  It usually numbers about 20-25 members, and consists of the most senior government Ministers—mostly MPs, but there are usually a small number of peers as well.  The Prime Minister determines who will sit in Cabinet, although certain offices of state are always represented. More

Commonly, there are 2-3 peers in Cabinet including the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House of Lords.
The Cabinet meets every Tuesday in the Cabinet Room at Number 10 Downing Street.

The following ministers usually sit in Cabinet:

* the Chancellor of the Exchequer

* the Home Secretary

* Secretary of State for Defence

* Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

* Secretary of State for Education and Employment

* Secretary of State for Social security

* Secretary of State for Environment

* Secretary of State for Health

* Secretary of State for Scotland

* Secretary of State for Wales

* Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The Cabinet has changed a great deal over time.  At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the sole decision-making body, senior government Ministers coming together to discuss and decide great affairs of state.  However, Cabinet committees began to proliferate to meet the demands of modern day government.  Decisions began to be taken outside Cabinet proper, as it was too cumbersome for all Ministers to be faced with every pressing matter. Meetings of the full Cabinet have decreased in number as cabinet committees have increased.

Cabinet committees (and sub-committees) consist of a smaller number of Cabinet members, and are usually chaired by senior Ministers, or occasionally the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister decides who sits on Cabinet committees. They exist to relieve the burden on Cabinet decision-making generally, and to ensure decisions which are made at Cabinet level have been discussed fully. As of July 2009 there were 17 Cabinet Committees and 28 Cabinet subcommittees, and as of May 2010, there were 15 cabinet committees and an unconfirmed number of subcommittees. More

A full list of current Cabinet committees and subcommittees can be found here

Cabinet has a number of functions.

* It controls the legislative programme

* It challenges and supports the Prime Minister’s leadership

* It oversees relations with Parliament

* It ensures Ministers’ accountability

* It coordinates the work of different departments.

The importance of the Cabinet depends very much on the character of the Prime Minister. More

Under both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s governments, meetings of the full time Cabinet dropped. Both Prime Ministers preferred informal discussions between themselves and a small group of Ministers to meetings of the full Cabinet, prompting concerns that they were trying to bypass the Cabinet. In 1969, there were 61 Cabinet meetings; in 1985, 37; and in 2000, 36. See Anthony Seldon The Cabinet System in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)


The Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Office together with the Treasury, provides the ‘head office’ of the Government.  The Department states its three core functions to be:

   1. Supporting the Prime Minister – to define and deliver the Government's objectives.

   2. Supporting the Cabinet – to drive the coherence, quality and delivery of policy and operations across departments.

   3. Strengthening the Civil Service – to ensure the civil service is organised effectively and has the capability in terms of skills, values and leadership to deliver the Government's objectives.

There are three Ministers working in the Cabinet Office, 18 Cabinet Office units (departments) and 10 Cabinet Office public bodies.  The Cabinet Office and all its component parts are staffed by Civil Servants.  More

Examples of Cabinet Office units are the Honours and Appointments Secretariat and the Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat.  Examples of the Cabinet Office Public Bodies are the Advisory Committee on Business Appointment and the House of Lords Appointments Commission.  For more details of the office

This bureaucratic heart of government is the prime vehicle for communication between the Cabinet and the Civil Service and the monitoring of the delivery of policy by government departments.


Special Advisors

Special advisors are temporary civil servants who provide a party-political dimension to advice, which civil servants are not permitted to do.  The rise in special advisors has prompted concern about a move towards a ‘presidential government’ and has led to calls to impose a cap on the number of special advisors employed.  Currently there are no plans by the Government to do so. More

In 1994-5 there were 34 special advisors of whom 6 worked in Number 10; by the end of the Brown Government there were 79 special advisors, 25 of whom were in Number 10, at a total cost of £5.9 million per annum. The Coalition Government currently has a total of 68, 18 of whom are in Number 10. More information about special advisors, including their salaries and overall cost, can be found at: and
Although they provide a party-political outlook, special advisers are paid from the public purse.  The terms and conditions of their employment are regulated by the Cabinet Office, which also maintains a code of conduct for Special Advisers.  Although Special Advisers are broadly expected to comply with the same standard of conduct as Civil Servants, they are exempt from the general requirement that civil servants should be appointed on merit and behave with impartiality and objectivity so that they may retain the confidence of future governments of a different political complexion.  In other words, they are expressly permitted to be politically biased. More
An article on the history and possible future of special advisors can be found here.


The Powers of Government


The Government is able to function because it has a wide range of powers which derive from a number of different sources.  These can be summarized as:

* Prerogative powers

* Statutory powers (the prerogative and statutory powers are sometimes together referred to as Executive powers)

* Parliamentary legislation

* Delegated legislation

* Prerogative legislation

* Administrative rule-making

* Guidance and codes of practice, voluntary agreement and self-regulation

Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins British Government and the Constitution (sixth edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)


Prerogative Powers

The prerogative powers, although limited in number, are broad, undefined and rarely subject to Parliamentary scrutiny.  They are the remnants of the powers of the Monarch, transferred from monarchy to the Government, and which have never really been subject to parliamentary ratification.  For this reason the prerogative, or royal prerogative, is regarded with great suspicion.

The principal royal prerogative or ‘Ministerial executive’ powers include the following:

Government and the Civil Service:

This includes powers to establish a department and to appoint and regulate most civil servants More

  An example of this would be the powers to establish bodies such as the Office of the Civil Service Commissioners, the Security Vetting Appeals Panel, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Advisory Committee on Business, the Civil Service Appeal Board and the House of Lords Appointments Commission and appoint members to them

Justice system and law and order:

This includes the prerogative of mercy and the power to keep the peace More

  Further examples are the powers to appoint Queen’s Counsel, the most senior barristers; the power to order certain kinds of extradition requests

Powers relating to foreign affairs:

This includes the powers to make and ratify treaties to conduct diplomacy to acquire and cede territory and to issue, refuse or withdraw passport facilities More

This also includes the power to send ambassadors abroad and receive and accredit ambassadors from foreign states; the recognition of states; the governance of British Overseas Territories; responsibility for the Channel Islands and Isle of Man

Powers relating to armed forces, war and times of emergency:

This includes the power to make war or peace or institute hostilities falling short of war and to deploy and use armed forces overseas; More

  Other powers include maintenance of the Royal Navy; use of the armed forces within the UK to maintain the peace in support of the police or otherwise in support of civilian authorities; the control, organisation and disposition of armed forces; armed forces pay; powers in the event of a grave national emergency, including those to enter upon, take and destroy private property. 

On current attitudes to the power to declare war, see the comments under the heading Prime Minister, Power on the national and international stage, above.  


This includes holding public inquiries (where not covered by the Inquiries Act) More

the power to establish corporations by Royal Charter and to amend existing Charters (for example that of the British Broadcasting Corporation); to appoint the Controller; to hold and exercise all rights and privileges in connection with prerogative copyright; the sole right of printing or licensing the printing of the Authorised Version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, state papers and Acts of Parliament

In addition to the prerogative powers exercised by the Government are the so-called Constitutional, or personal, prerogatives. Many of these are the most important prerogative powers in British government.  They are often said to be personal to the Monarch and only exercised by her; but in practice it is either the Prime Minister who exercises these powers, or the Monarch does, but with very little discretion at all.  These ‘personal’ prerogatives include:

* The power to dismiss the Government

* The power to assent to legislation

* The appointment of the Prime Minister

* The power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament

* The appointment and removal of Ministers

* The granting of honours, decorations, arms and regulating matters of precedence. More

For more on the role of the Queen in inviting the leader of a party to form a Government in the event of a ‘hung’ parliament, go to Monarchy

Some of these prerogative powers are now being codified into statute - for instance, legislation on the organization of the civil service is currently going through the legislature. More

On this, and for a full list of the royal prerogatives, see: The Governance of Britain: Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers Final Report this provides the most up-to-date list of prerogative powers in Britain.


Statutory Powers

Most executive powers of the Government now stem from statute.  Generally speaking, a statute will vest power in a Secretary of State, giving him greater discretion.  In practice, such power is delegated to a departmental official. More

For instance, the Home Secretary has, amongst many others, wide powers to set policy objectives for police authorities; to direct them to set performance targets; to set up an inquiry into any matter concerning policing; issue codes of practice and conduct; to prescribe by regulation equipment to be used; to set the administration and conditions of service, qualification and appointment standards; and to determine funding of any policing authority.      AW Bradley and KD Ewing Constitutional and Administrative Law (14th edition, Pearson Education, 2007)


Parliamentary legislation

Governments are in control of the legislative process.  They initiate legislation, have the resources of the civil service behind them, and have various institutional advantages to ensure legislation can be passed.  Governments usually have the majority in the House of Commons, and can therefore control the business and direction of Parliament; they control select committee membership and have various procedures to ensure the passage of legislation (for instance, through programming and fast track measures). Parliament - usually under the direction of the Executive - passes about 30-50 statutes per year. More

For more details see the sections relating to the House of Commons and the House of Lords.


Delegated legislation

In theory, only Parliament can legislate; but many statutes grant to the Executive a power to pass secondary, or ‘delegated’ legislation.  Primary legislation is often kept clear and simple; but modern governance may require immediacy, flexibility and detail, which may be best achieved through delegated legislation.  The key problem with delegated legislation is the extent of the delegation - which can often be very broad - coupled with the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny or acceptance.  Delegated legislation takes the form of statutory instruments, which have been increasing over the years: well over 3000 SIs are passed every year.  The increase in use of delegated legislation is kept under scrutiny by various parliamentary bodies. More

An example of regulations made pursuant to this type of delegated legislation is The Police Act 1997 (Criminal Redords) (No.2) Regulations 2009 which provides for CRB checks for anyone working with children or vulnerable adults. 


Prerogative legislation

There are some limited areas in which the royal prerogative to enact legislation without reference to Parliament still exists.  Such legislation is made by ‘Orders in Council’, orders that have been approved at a meeting of the Privy Council personally by The Queen. Prerogative legislation can also be used to amend the constitutions of the few remaining colonies. More

The Privy Council is an historical anomaly.  As old as the monarchy itself, the membership of the Privy Council comprises all Cabinet Ministers and a number of junior Ministers.  As membership is for life, the number of members currently exceeds 500.  However, the Council has met in full only once in the last 50 years.  The Cabinet is a committee of the Privy Council and Ministers attend monthly meetings.  The proceedings of the Privy Council are secret.  The Privy Council’s judicial arm is also the final court of appeal for a number of countries in the Commonwealth. 

A list of the most recent orders approved includes matters such as the amendment of the statutes of a number of Colleges and Universities, Orders giving notice of the discontinuance of burials at certain graveyards and Orders appointing certain Inspectors of Education in Scotland under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.  In 2004 an Order in Council prohibited the Chagos Islanders from returning to the Chagos Islands.    


Administrative rule-making

Ministers and government departments often draw up rules stating how discretionary powers will be exercised. This is to ensure consistency and fairness; but they may be labyrinthine and they are not challenged easily. More

An often cited example is the rules relating to naturalization and passports.


Guidance and codes of practice, voluntary agreement and self-regulation

The Government also attempts to influence particular bodies who may prize their autonomy, such as local government, the police and the City of London. More

The Government may acquiesce in an institution devising its own methods of self-regulation, but on the basis that if standards are not thought to be acceptable, there is the suggestion that a Government agency may intervene and introduce statutory regulation in its stead.  An example of this type of self-regulation is the Combined Code on Corporate Governance maintained and promoted by the Financial Reporting Council.



Accountability: Ministerial Responsibility


In theory, all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are individually and collectively accountable to Parliament.  This responsibility is a convention, but to some extent has now been formalized in the Ministerial Code of Conduct.


Individual ministerial responsibility

All Ministers are responsible for:

* their private conduct

* the general conduct of their department

* acts done (or left undone) by officials in their department


There are a number of ways in which Ministers can meet their responsibility:

* Giving an account

* Providing information

* Amendatory action

* Resignation


Resignation is the most drastic answer to a breach of ministerial responsibility.  In practice, the requirement of responsibility is met by more commonplace means, such as by answering questions in Parliament or by appearing before a select committee.  In practice, breaches of ministerial responsibility, even serious breaches, may not lead to resignation. More

A classic example of individual ministerial responsibility is the Crichel Down affair.  Land in Dorset was compulsorily acquired by the Air Ministry for use in 1938.  After the war, the land was transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture and leased out. A former owner’s request to buy back his land was refused.  Ultimately this led to an official inquiry, and the resignation of the then Minister of Transport, Sir Thomas Dugdale.  Dugdale stated that he took full responsibility to Parliament for the actions of his officials, and had lost the confidence of the House.  Thus, he had to resign. 

A more recent example is the Hinduja affair: Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, resigned in 2001 after allegations that he had been involved in attempting to secure a UK passport for an Indian millionaire.  An independent inquiry later absolved Mandelson.

One key issue is the extent to which Ministers can be held responsible for the actions (or non-actions) of their departments.  At the turn of the 20th century, it was assumed that a Minister had direct control over what went on in his or her department.  But because of the expansion and complexity of modern government, it is not possible for Ministers to know of every decision made by the civil servants who work under them. More

The extent to which ministers should take responsibility for the 'botched' administration of their departments was set out by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, then Home Secretary, after the Crichel Down affair.  It was felt that Dugdale had been forced out of office for something he could not control. The Maxwell Fyfe doctrine stated that a “minister is not bound to defend action of which he did not know, or of which he disapproves.  But… he remains constitutionally responsible to Parliament for the fact that something has gone wrong, and he alone can tell Parliament what has occurred and render an account of his stewardship.”
Moreover, most civil servants have now been transferred to work for executive agencies, which makes the lines of responsibility even more unclear.  Ministers can claim they are only responsible for general policy; administration and implementation is the responsibility of civil servants. More
Some examples where Ministers did not resign:

* The Maze Prison Breakout: in 1983, 38 IRA prisoners broke out of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.  The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Prior, refused to resign as he said that the breakout had not been caused by government policy, but was rather administrative in origin.

* The Scott Report: this 1996 inquiry was about the arms to Iraq affair.  Conservative ministers had secretly changed the guidelines on the sale of arms to Iraq and encouraged British companies to apply for export licenses by describing arms in a misleading way.  One of these companies was prosecuted for breaching the ban on the sale of arms to Iraq, but the Government attempted to prevent the changes in guidelines from emerging by claiming public interest immunity.  This might have led to the conviction of the directors being prosecuted, but for an admission by a Minister that he had been ‘economical’ with the facts.  An inquiry under Sir Richard Scott found that Ministers had not deliberately lied to Parliament, but that they had told less than the truth.  The result was that no Minister resigned: it was apparently necessary to have intentionally deceived Parliament to be held liable.

House of Commons Library Research Paper Individual Ministerial Responsibility Issues and Examples:   


Collective ministerial responsibility

By convention all Ministers must abide by collective ministerial responsibility, or collective cabinet responsibility: they must publicly support decisions made in Cabinet, or resign. Collective ministerial responsibility has three aspects: unanimity, confidence and confidentiality.

* Unanimity: Ministers are expected publicly to support Cabinet decisions, because unity and cohesiveness is vital to government.

* Confidence: the Cabinet is expected to maintain the confidence of the House.  That is, its decisions must be accepted by a majority of all MPs voting in the House of Commons.  If they do not, the Cabinet is expected to resign.

* Confidentiality: what is said in Cabinet, stays in Cabinet.  This ensures an environment in which Ministers can freely speak their minds, but also reinforces unanimity.

In practice, these three tenets are occasionally broken without incurring any penalty.  Ministers have on occasion ‘agreed to disagree’ with their colleagues, and yet have remained in Cabinet. In the current Coalition Government this situation is more natural, indeed in the build up to the AV referendum the Prime Minister and Deupty Prime Minister were on opposite sides of th argument. More

A classic example of this was in 1975, when a number of Cabinet Ministers in the Labour government had an ‘agreement to differ; on EEC membership. On the other hand Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe eventually resigned from the Cabinet because he disagreed with Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to allow Britain to enter a single currency, and more generally with Thatcher’s approach to Europe. House of Commons Library Research Paper The Collective Responsibility of Ministers An Outline of the Issue:


The Ministerial Code of Conduct

This is a code of ethics and procedural guidance, and to a large extent has codified individual and collective ministerial responsibility.  Key to it are the seven principles of public life (often known as the Nolan principles): selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. More

The Ministerial Code was reissued in May 2010 by the Coalition government and can be found here:

House of Commons Library Standard Note The Ministerial Code

Until recently, there was no means of investigating allegations of breaches of the code.  However, an independent adviser has been appointed to investigate allegations of breaches of Ministers’ interests.


Other methods of accountability


Apart from the principle of Ministerial responsibility, the Government may also be held to account in other ways:

* by answering to The House of Commons and the House of Lords through parliamentary questions, select, joint and grand committees;

* by being lobbied through informal channels - both the Government and individual ministers are aware their actions must be acceptable to the governing party as a whole; 

* on occasion, the judiciary may call the executive to account; the extent to which the new Supreme Court will feel free to challenge Government actions is as yet unknown;

* ultimately, the Government’s actions will be judged every 4-5 years by a vote of the people;

* the role of the civil service is to serve the Government, but at least theoretically its institutional knowledge and continuity may provide a brake on ill-thought through action;

* various other bodies (Quangos) may exercise scrutiny of executive action, such as the Commission for Standards in Public Life and the National Audit Office;

* the media also routinely challenge politicians individually and collectively.

More detailed commentary on each of these forms of scrutiny will be found in the relevant sections of this website.


External limitations on government

Membership of the European Union has constrained British governments in several ways, not least in terms of the ability of governments to enact legislation in various areas of law such as environmental protection, employment, and competition; but in matters like the control of immigration, goods, capital and services as well. More

It is often thought that Britain has ‘lost’ sovereignty to the EU, but the history of the EU has been one of states joining on their own terms, to resolve problems undermining their legitimacy.  In joining the EU, British governments have attempted to ensure greater economic security for their citizens; and perhaps to ensure greater stability in Europe: these are matters which may be difficult to measure.

There are various kinds of international constraints on the ability of the government to act.  For instance, Britain is subject to the rule of various international institutions and organisations, such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the World Trade Organisation—so, for example, the UK cannot simply impose tariffs on goods and services at its leisure: it may become subject to WTO dispute resolution procedures.

Governments may be constrained by foreign policy.  It has been argued that Prime Minister Tony Blair took the UK to war with Iraq in order to maintain the ‘special relationship’ with the US, in spite of strong domestic and international opposition (this also provides evidence of the dominance of the executive over Parliament).  Equally the UK remains able to exercise external sovereignty against smaller countries, such as Iceland.  In the recent credit crisis, Britain froze large amounts of Icelandic assets under anti-terrorism laws.  In short, the UK is a member of the international community, which is like any other political grouping — it has strong and weak members, some capable of exercising greater power and influence than others.


What do others think?

House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee Report: Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament


Government Green Paper The Governance of Britain (2007)

This paper updates the progress of the 2007 proposals:


The Governance of Britain: Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers Final Report



Demos: The Culture of Churn for UK Ministers and the Price We All Pay


3 Reports suggesting improvements to the way Whitehall, and particularly the executive, are performing:

Institue for Government:  Shaping up: A Whitehall for the Future

Better Government Initiative:  Good government: Reforming Parliament and the Executive

House of Lords Constitution Committee: The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government

References and Links

Research papers

Select Committees


Useful websites


Further reading


Research papers

Special advisers, House of Commons Library, September 2010

The Collective Responsibility of Ministers, House of Commons Library, November 2004

Briefing Paper on the Draft Cabinet Manual, The Constitution Society

Margaret Wilson on the Cabinet Manual

Richard Gordon on the Cabinet Manual

Select Committees

Public Administration Select Committee

         - Report: Government by Appointment: Opening up the Patronage State, 2003

Commons Procedure Committee

Lords Procedure Committee

Key Websites

The Prime Minister's Office

The United Kingdom Cabinet

House of Commons Library Notes on Parliament and Constitution

The Ministerial Code

Further reading

- Peter Hennessy The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 (Penguin, London, 2000)

- Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon The Powers Behind the Prime Minister: The Hidden Influence of Number Ten (HarperCollins, Hammersmith, 2000)

- Anthony Seldon: The Cabinet System - in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Diana Woodhouse: Ministerial Responsibility - in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Philip Norton Parliament in British Politics (second edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005)

- Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007)