Chapter 1: Understanding Cabinet Government
‘It’s what we call influence and not power.’ A Dutch minister was describing how Dutch prime ministers exercise authority within the Netherlands cabinet government. He was emphasizing the collective commitment. Prime ministers may lead; they do not command.
They never have a free hand. Cabinet government in parliamentary democracies is surrounded by rules, procedures, guidelines, conventions, and laws; we discuss many of them in this book. But the Dutch cabinet minister wanted to stress that what makes cabinet government work is not so much the rules and procedures as the capacity of individuals to interpret them in ways that ultimately facilitate collective decision-making. Cabinet government is about relationships. It is about influence. Its functions are determined as much by personality as by rules. Effective strategies are contingent.
For example, in 1976, the British cabinet met for a five-day debate on whether to accept the terms being imposed by the IMF before it would provide a loan. The occasion is cited by some, such as adviser David Lipsey, as a classic example of cabinet government in action.1 Peter Hennessy too regards it as a success, but not because it decided on a preferred policy.2 Rather it was successful because there were no resignations. It was cabinet process as a means of political management, not policy choice. On the other hand, Edmund Dell, a minister in that cabinet, thought it was a ‘farce, and a dangerous farce at that’ because the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer had already decided what needed to be done