The Cabinet is a formal body composed of the most senior government ministers chosen by the Prime Minister. Most members are heads of government departments with the title “Secretary of State”. Formal members of the Cabinet are usually drawn from the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The Cabinet has no legal existence, beyond the powers of the ministers of the Crown. It is merely a Committee, whose very existence was originally secret, formed from the majority party of the House, to carry out this business of Government.
A Government consists altogether of about seventy politicians – about a ninth of the members of Parliament – in eluding such unlikely people as the Solicitor-General for Scotland and five junior Lords of the Treasury. There are also nine ministers who, although heads of important departments, including Pensions, Health and Power, arc not in the Cabinet. But it is the Cabinet which forms the heart of decisions, and between the
Cabinet and the rest is a great divide. Non-cabinet ministers are occasionally invited to the Cabinet room to discuss their topics, but the ordeal is alarming.
The Cabinet meets in a long white room at the back of 10, Downing Street, with awkward pillars in the middle, looking out on to the garden. Ministers leave their hats and coats on a rack outside, labelled “Lord Chancellor”, “Paymaster-General”, etc., and sit down in front of green baize, pens and paper; the Prime Minister – who also uses the room as his office – sits in the middle facing the garden. The Prime Minister opens the meeting, and Ministers address their remarks to him, referring with careful impersonality to their colleagues: “I can’t quite agree with the Lord Privy Seal…”
The Prime Minister in Cabinet is officially no more than primus inter pares (lat. first among his equals) – just one member of a committee, hut in fact, apart from his political advantage, he has a strong hand. He is Chairman of the Committee: he appoints it, summons it, guides it, and can eventually dissolve it. Cabinet-making is probably the most important part of a Prime Minister’s job: but the scope is not as great as might appear from outside.
A Cabinet remains very much the expression of a Prime Minister’s personality. He can introduce peers, and if necessary make peers, he can bring in ballast and he can – up to a point – demote his rivals.
The Cabinet, most people agree, is too big. It has fluctuated over twenty years between fifteen and twenty-two: but nice the eighteenth century has steadily got bigger. Big cabinets lead inevitably to formality, and any meeting of twenty has severe limitations. Inside a big Cabinet there nearly always develops an “inner Cabinet” – the small up of ministers who are consulted by the Prime Minister beforehand and who prepare and guide the decisions.