Cabinet Functions and Procedure
The Prime Minister includes in the Cabinet ministers heading the major government departments and other ministers without specific portfolios who have less onerous duties. Traditionally peacetime cabinets have had about twenty members, although there has been a tendency for larger cabinets in the recent past. The Cabinet owes its existence to no statute. It has no independent legal authority and no fixed rules of procedure, which are at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day. Nevertheless, it is the forum that formulates government policy and its decisions are accepted without question throughout government. These decisions are carried out by departments and the Cabinet provides the mechanism that reconciles the principles of ministerial and collective responsibility, whereby ministers are responsible for their own area but share a collective responsibility for the actions of the Government as a whole.
Much of the detailed work of the Cabinet is carried out in committees, which may often frame decisions that will simply be ratified by the full Cabinet. The Cabinet itself usually only considers major issues of policy, those of potential public criticism or those that have caused conflict and been unresolved elsewhere.
The first Rules of Procedure are those by the War Cabinet's first Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, on 24 January 1917. The basic procedure has changed little since and is usually laid out in Instructions to the Secretary accepted by an early meeting of each new administration. Issues are raised in memoranda that are circulated before a meeting and are noted in numbered order on the agenda. Matters are discussed at the Cabinet meeting and minutes, or conclusions, are drawn up later, which are circulated to ministers for action or information and to the sovereign. Cabinet conclusions are not verbatim accounts of the meetings but consist of summaries of the discussion together with a note of the decisions reached. They do not generally reveal conflict within Cabinet. Particularly confidential minutes are said to be recorded in the Secretary's Standard File which became the Confidential Annexes.
Since its origins in the early eighteenth century, the Cabinet met with no formal agenda, and no minutes of proceedings were kept before the appointment of a Secretary to the War Cabinet in December 1916. However, from the early nineteenth century an increasing number of papers prepared by ministers and officials were printed and circulated to the Cabinet, and it was a long established practice for the Prime Minister to send a personal letter to the Sovereign after each meeting to report proceedings.
The full Cabinet continued to meet even after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Immediate control of the conduct of the war, in the absence of the suspended Committee of Imperial Defence, passed successively to the War Council, the Dardanelles Committee and the War Committee. On the fall of Asquith, the War Committee and full Cabinet meetings were suspended by Lloyd George in favour of a War Cabinet, which was to undertake the supreme direction of the war.
First World War:
The War Cabinet, which met for the first time on 9 December 1916, had only five members, the Prime Minister and four others, only one of whom, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had departmental responsibilities. Subsequently the membership of the War Cabinet was increased to seven. However, departmental ministers and officials and naval and military officers attended whenever necessary, to give their views on matters before the War Cabinet.
The absence of any record of Cabinet decisions and of any regular machine for co-ordination between Cabinet and departments had already proved a hindrance to the efficient prosecution of the war; the exclusion from the War Cabinet of departmental ministers made it even more difficult to maintain traditional methods of conducting Cabinet business. Consequently, the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which had already served the War Council, Dardanelles Committee and War Committee, was put to the use of the War Cabinet.
A series of meetings, known as the Imperial War Cabinet, took place during 1917-1919 in London between prime ministers and other ministers of the Dominions, representatives of the Government of India and members of the British War Cabinet.
With the end of the war in 1918 and the demands of the Peace Conference, the War Cabinet met less often and the numbers attending it gradually increased. The first meeting of the peacetime Cabinet of twenty members was on 4 November 1919.
Lloyd George as Prime Minister also held a number of informal meetings with ministers between October 1919 and September 1922, known as Conferences of Ministers.
Second World War:
From September 1939 to May 1945 the Cabinet and the Committee of Imperial Defence were again replaced by a smaller War Cabinet to oversee the running of the war. This had a restricted membership, varying between five and ten, and usually fairly equally divided between departmental and non- departmental ministers. Various areas of work were dealt with by Committees with a wider representation, some of which had executive functions. Chamberlain's War Cabinet was reconstructed by Churchill in May 1940 to include representatives of the Labour and Liberal parties.
The War Cabinet sometimes met in underground emergency accommodation in the basement of the Government Offices, Great George Street, London. These rooms became known as the Cabinet War Rooms.
After the defeat of Germany, the Labour and Liberal parties withdrew from the Coalition Government, the members of the War Cabinet resigned, and Churchill formed a 'caretaker government', reverting to a Cabinet of pre-war size, with which the cabinets of subsequent administrations have, with slight variations, conformed.