The executive

On this page you will find discussion and analysis of the fundamental ideas that underpin discussions about the UK executive. The content here is specifically designed for A level politics and early undergraduate level students looking to deepen their understanding of the topic. At A level, the component 2 topic on The Executive looks at the power of the Prime Minister in the UK, their relationship with the Cabinet and Parliament and whether the constitution sets out enough safeguards against executive dominance. 

Click on any of the questions below to be taken to the answer.

What is the executive?

What are the main roles and powers of the executive?

How much of the roles and powers of the executive are dealt with in the constitution and where can they be found?

What is the Cabinet and what does it do?

What is cabinet government and the convention of collective cabinet responsibility?

Why have modern prime ministers been criticised for undermining cabinet government?

How strong is collective cabinet responsibility and how does it manifest in modern cabinets?

What do Prime Minsters have to consider before appointing ministers?

What is the Ministerial Code?

What is individual ministerial responsibility?

To what extent do ministers resign today because of individual ministerial responsibility?

Further reading

What is the executive?

What is the executive? What are its functions and powers?

The term ‘executive’ refers to the government: those who make the key decisions and run the country day to day. In the UK system, the party with the most seats in the House of Commons is typically invited to form a government. The government – which is made up of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and various junior ministers – is drawn from individuals who sit in Parliament, usually from the winning party. The Prime Minister is normally the leader of that party, and they have the power to appoint the other members of the government. This includes the most important ‘Great Offices of State’: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is in charge of economic policy; the Foreign Secretary; and the Home Secretary. However, there are many more government departments, each led by a Secretary of State or their equivalent and appointed by the Prime Minister.  

This is what is referred to as a parliamentary, rather than presidential system. This means there is a degree of ‘fusion’ or connection between the legislature and the executive (as the government is drawn out of and sits in the legislature). 

What are the main roles and powers of the executive?

The executive holds a lot of power within the UK system. Most legislation is introduced to Parliament by the government, which to a large extent controls the agenda and time of the House of Commons. The government proposes an annual budget which sets out how it will spend money over the coming year. The government also has the discretion to make a broad range of policy decisions in areas such as transport, education and health. These policies are often carried out through what is known as secondary or delegated legislation. Acts of Parliament often grant ministers and other bodies extensive powers that can be used to develop a policy further, without having to go through the full process of passing a new statute. These delegated executive powers can be broad, but ministers are not allowed to go beyond what is set out in primary legislation. If they do, this can be challenged in the courts through judicial review. 

The executive also holds other powers, called Royal Prerogative powers. These are the powers that are in theory attached to the monarch, but are now in practice largely exercised by the government. They can be used without having to get consent from Parliament. They include powers to conduct foreign policy, including conducting diplomacy and deploying the army, to grant honours, and to prorogue Parliament (which means to end its current session). These powers have often been controversial, as there are limited checks and constraints on their use by the executive.   

BBC Newsnight explains the controversy around the proroguing of Parliament in 2019.

How much of the roles and powers of the executive are dealt with in the constitution and where can they be found?

The role and powers of the executive are in many ways unclear, as many of them are defined only by conventions, rules which do not have any formal legal basis. There is no single legal document that clearly defines the role of the government and the limits of its power.

Prerogative powers are a particular source of confusion. They are not set out in statute, but come from the common law (law which is developed by judges in relation to customs and precedents). It is difficult to say exactly what prerogative powers still exist as some of them have not been used for many centuries. Furthermore, there is no generally accepted definition of what constitutes a Royal Prerogative and their scope, according to the Ministry of Justice, ‘is notoriously difficult to determine.’ 

In 2011, the first (and, thus far, only) edition of a document called the Cabinet Manual was published. It was initiated by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but published under the coalition government that followed. It was intended to provide ‘a source of information on the laws, convention and rules that affect the operation and procedures of the Government.’ 

It is the only place that some of the most important conventions surrounding the executive’s functions and powers are set out. One of these is, for example, the understanding that the Prime Minister is head of the government by virtue of his or her ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. It refers to some of the other conventions mentioned above as well, such as the understanding that an individual should only be a minister if they have a seat in either the Commons or the Lords. 

However, none of the above is set out in statute law and the Cabinet Manual, despite helping to clarify and explain the UK constitution, is not intended to have legal force. It describes the role of the government from the perspective of the executive itself. Furthermore, it has not been reissued since 2011, so some of the information it contains is now out of date. 

Further reading: Baroness Taylor of Bolton, ‘An updated Cabinet Manual is needed to maintain public trust, ethical standards and our constitution’

What is the Cabinet and what does it do?

The Cabinet is the most senior, formal decision-making body of government. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and made up of the most senior ministers. The Prime Minister decides who can attend Cabinet. The Cabinet is intended to provide a forum for the Prime Minister and their ministers to discuss and decide together on the government’s policies and what approach it should take to issues. 

Here is a list of the current cabinet ministers and their departments in the UK government.

What is cabinet government and the convention of collective cabinet responsibility?

Cabinet government refers to a way of governing where the Cabinet debates an issue and then decides on a collective, unified position. It rests on a convention referred to as collective cabinet responsibility. This means that ministers can express their own views on a matter in Cabinet meetings, but that once a collective decision has been reached, they must support that decision in public. The idea is that decisions are based on open discussion and that the Prime Minister is ‘first among equals’. This also means that the Cabinet share joint responsibility for all of the government’s decisions. As the Cabinet Manual explains, ‘collective responsibility allows ministers to express their views frankly in discussion, in the expectation that they can maintain a united front once a decision has been reached.’ According to this principle, the Prime Minister summarises the view of the Cabinet, but does not dictate what its decisions should be.

Gavin Williamson was sacked in 2019 from Theresa May’s government after he leaked information from the National Security Council.

Why have modern prime ministers been criticised for undermining cabinet government?

It is sometimes said that cabinet government has been weakened by some Prime Ministers in recent times. They have been accused of not properly consulting with their Cabinets, or allowing for a full and proper discussion amongst Cabinet members. Tony Blair was accused of conducting ‘sofa government’, where he would discuss important policy issues with particular ministers or advisers outside of Cabinet meetings. Cabinet meetings would then be short with limited discussion of policies that had been largely been agreed elsewhere. Blair was accused of governing in a more ‘presidential’ style because of this. 

When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister he promised ‘cabinet government, not sofa government’. However, Brown himself admitted that he wasn’t successful in restoring cabinet government. David Cameron made the same pledge, but the coalition government was in the end dominated by the ‘quad’, who made most of the key decisions. Theresa May held much more substantial Cabinet meetings than her predecessors, with lengthy discussions and opportunities to speak. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that key policy decisions, such as around Brexit and the 2017 Conservative manifesto, were still not really taken in Cabinet, but elsewhere.  

Former minister Clare Short explains how the Cabinet of Tony Blair functioned in the lead up to the Iraq war.

Further reading: The Chicot Report criticised Tony Blair for failing to act through Cabinet in the lead up to the Iraq war. This article explains the main findings of the report and the lessons for the machinery of government.

How strong is collective cabinet responsibility and how does it manifest in modern cabinets?

The outward facing aspect of collective responsibility is that all ministers unite publicly around decisions reached, regardless of their private opinions. If they are not able to refrain publicly from disagreeing with policy, they are supposed to resign. However, collective cabinet responsibility in this sense can sometimes be explicitly set aside. This was done by David Cameron in 2016 in the run up to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Despite the fact that he and his government advocated the UK staying in the EU, he allowed members of his Cabinet who wanted to dissent from this position in the referendum campaign without needing to resign. Some say that collective cabinet responsibility was weakened in the long-term by this decision, even after Cameron left office.

The premiership of Theresa May in particular was marked by prominent apparent breaches of collective cabinet responsibility: ministers regularly publicly expressed dissent from the government’s Brexit position, leaks of Cabinet discussions were commonplace, and various ministers publicly advocated alternative Brexit policies. This even extended to ministers voting against the government. Typically, a minister would be expected to resign or be sacked in these circumstances. However, Theresa May often did not take action for such breaches of cabinet collective responsibility, which in turn encouraged more disloyalty. 

It is far harder to maintain cabinet collective responsibility if there are deep divisions on an issue within the governing party – as was the case for the Conservatives in relation to Brexit. On becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson appointed a Cabinet primarily made up of people who had supported Brexit or were clearly willing to do so in future, which avoided some of the problems faced by his predecessors. 

In 2018, there were two high-profile resignations from Theresa May’s Cabinet over Brexit.

Further reading: Chris Malone, ‘Cabinet collective responsibility: how it works, and why it survives’

What do Prime Minsters have to consider before appointing ministers?

As this indicates, Prime Ministers have to keep a number of different factors in mind when it comes to deciding on who the ministers in their government should be. One important factor is whether they are capable of doing the job of running or helping to run a government department. To be a Secretary of State in a major government office is challenging. It requires managerial and political skill, as well as policy ideas and the resolve to deliver them. Not everyone possesses these skills. If a Prime Minister puts someone not up to the task in an important position this could backfire – the individual might make mistakes that damage the reputation of the government and harm the party’s chances of re-election. 

However, competence isn’t the only thing that Prime Ministers must consider. They must also think about the political leanings of the individuals they appoint to the government and ask whether they can be counted on to support the government’s agenda. As we have seen, if Prime Ministers fail to do this sufficiently, it can lead to a breakdown in collective cabinet responsibility with damaging consequences. This said, appointing a Cabinet purely made up of people who agree with you can also be a bad idea. In this situation, there will be no one to challenge bad ideas, which again might lead to poor policies that damage the government’s reputation. Some Prime Ministers have operated on the basis that it is better to have your potential opponents in the government, as it makes it harder for them to criticise you and mount a possible leadership challenge.   

Further reading: Michela Palese, ‘What does the reshuffle mean for constitutional reform?’

What is the Ministerial Code?

According to the UK government’s own definition the Ministerial Code ‘sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers and how they discharge their duties.’ The document is meant to act as a guide as to how ministers should behave. It contains rules about misleading Parliament, using government resources for personal or Party-political purposes, and accepting gifts, amongst many other things.  

The usual practice is for a new edition of the Code to be issued at the start of a new Parliament, or after a new Prime Minister takes office. The document is issued in the name of the Prime Minister and they are responsible for its enforcement. Although they have an adviser who can investigate breaches of the code at their request, it is the Prime Minister who ultimately decides how an offence should be punished. 

Much like the Cabinet Manual, the Ministerial Code is not law. Previously, there has been an expectation that ministers would resign or be sacked if they are found to breach the rules set out in the Code. However, this hasn’t always been the case. For example, in 2020, Priti Patel was found to have breached the Code by bullying staff in the Home Office. Despite this, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson allowed her to stay in her senior position in the government. This said, when Priti Patel was found to have broken the Ministerial Code on a previous occasion, this time under Theresa May, she resigned from the government. 

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided that he did not believe Priti Patel had broken the Ministerial Code.

Further reading: Andrew Blick, ‘De-coding the constitution?’ 

What is individual ministerial responsibility?

Individual ministerial responsibility refers to a constitutional convention according to which government ministers are ultimately responsible for the actions of their department. The convention dictates that if there is a failure in the department, the minister in charge of that department bears the responsibility, even if the mistake isn’t directly their fault. The error may have been the result of poor departmental processes or have come from a civil servant. Nevertheless, in these situations, it is the minister who must answer for what went wrong and who would be expected to resign if the failing was serious enough. 

The minister is accountable to Parliament for the actions of their department – they must come before Parliament and explain why certain decisions have been taken and why certain things may have gone wrong. For example, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling had to explain to Parliament in 2007 about the loss of computer disks with vast amounts of personal information on them, even though he did not lose the disks himself. Although it is not set out in law, the principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament is detailed in the Ministerial Code.

Matt Hancock resigned as Health Secretary after breaking government coronavirus rules.

To what extent do ministers resign today because of individual ministerial responsibility?

Despite the principle of ministerial responsibility, many ministers do not accept responsibility when things go wrong in their departments. Instead, they often claim that they weren’t aware of the issue, or that it was caused by other individuals or events out of their control. For example, after the exam results fiasco in 2020, the Secretary of State for education, Gavin Williamson, refused to resign despite a major failing and subsequent U-turn by his department. The most senior civil servant in the department resigned, as did the head of Ofqual, the exams regulator, but Williamson stayed in the position and did not accept responsibility. 

However, this is not always the case. There have been recent examples of a minister resigning for a departmental failure arguably out of their control. In 2018, then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned in relation to the Windrush scandal, despite the fact that the scandal originated under her predecessor, Theresa May. 

Further reading: Nat le Roux, ‘Cronyism, Covid and the constitution’

Channel 4 examines the 2021 reshuffle and the reasons behind high-profile changes.

Further reading: Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy, Good Chaps No More? Safeguarding the Constitution in Stressful Times

Tim Durant, ‘The prime minister can strengthen the system for upholding standards in government without giving up his role as the ultimate arbiter’