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In this lesson, we will examine the roles and duties of the British prime minister and Cabinet.

We will pay close attention to how the prime minister and Cabinet members obtain their positions.

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The Prime Minister

The student sits at her desk, fiddling with her pencil. It’s exam day, and this course on British government has been challenging to say the least. Today’s exam focuses on the prime minister and the Cabinet, and the student hopes that she has studied enough. When the professor hands out the exam, the student skims through it quickly, her confidence rising. It doesn’t look so bad after all!The first question is a breeze: ‘Define the term prime minister.’ The student writes quickly – ‘The prime minster is the head of the British government.

He or she is an active member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that holds the most seats there.’The next question is easy, too: ‘How does someone become prime minister?’ Again, the student jots her answer: ‘After an election, the monarch calls on the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons to form the new government. The leader, thereby, becomes the prime minister. Although he or she is elected to the House of Commons by a popular vote, he or she is appointed to the office of prime minister by the monarch.’The third question is a bit more challenging: ‘Who was the first prime minister?’ The student pauses a moment, scratches her head, and remembers, and then writes that the first prime minister was Sir Robert Walpole, who served in that role from 1720 to 1742. He wasn’t actually called a prime minister because that title wasn’t recognized until 1905, but he did the job.The fourth question isn’t so bad, although there is a bit of a trick to it: ‘Which prime minister was appointed after the general election of 2010?’ The student replies that Queen Elizabeth appointed David Cameron as the prime minister after the 2010 election.

Cameron, who is the head of the powerful Conservative Party, works in conjunction with his Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who is the head of the Liberal Democrats. Because the election did not result in either party holding the majority of seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had to form a coalition government and work together.

The Prime Minister’s Duties

The student flips her exam to the next page, which is mostly blank except for one line at the top, which reads, ‘List some of the duties of the prime minister.’ ‘The prime minister, the student reflects, is a very busy person.’ She immediately begins making her list:

  1. The prime minister is responsible for all the decisions and policies of the British government.
  2. He or she appoints government officials, such as members of the Cabinet.
  3. He or she serves as the head of the Cabinet and sits on several Cabinet committees.

  4. He or she manages, oversees, and organizes the work of government departments and agencies.
  5. He or she serves as a liaison between the monarch and the government, keeping the monarch up-to-date on government business. He or she also recommends candidates for the monarch to appoint to the House of Lords, the judicial bench, and the clergy of the Church of England.

  6. He or she is active in the House of Commons, often participating in debates, answering questions from fellow MPs, and making formal statements.
  7. He or she is the leader of his or her political party and works to keep the other members in line.
  8. He or she represents the United Kingdom internationally.

The Cabinet

Having completed her list, the student turns to the next page of the exam to see five questions about the British Cabinet.

She glances through them and sets to work. The first question asks for a simple definition: ‘What is the Cabinet?’ The student responds that the Cabinet is a committee that helps the prime minister analyze issues, make decisions, and set governmental policy.The next question isn’t too hard either: ‘Who appoints Cabinet members?’ ‘The prime minister gets to appoint the members of his or her Cabinet,’ the student quickly writes. ‘The prime minister is the first among equals in the Cabinet, which means that he or she has control over appointments and dismissals, but otherwise works in conjunction with the rest of the Cabinet.’The third question gives the student a slight pause as she tries to remember some details: ‘Describe the configuration of the Cabinet.’ ‘The Cabinet is made up of 22 ministers, including the prime minister and his deputy,’ the student begins. ‘These ministers are all members of Parliament.

In addition, most of them serve as the heads of government departments and carry the title of Secretary of State for those departments.’The student is about to write more, but then she notices the fourth question: ‘List a few members of the Cabinet.’ She does so easily, listing the Home Secretary, who manages internal affairs; the Foreign Secretary, who deals with international affairs; the Lord Chancellor, who guides the legal system; the Secretary of State for Education; the Secretary of State for Transportation and the Environment; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who handles the country’s finances.With just one more question now, the student thinks with relief, and it isn’t too hard: ‘What does the Cabinet do?’ The student makes a list of the Cabinet’s duties:

  1. The Cabinet creates policy for the government and its departments.
  2. It meets with the prime minister weekly to discuss major issues and make decisions about how the government should respond to them. Members then take their decisions to the House of Commons for further debate and support as necessary.

  3. Its members form committees to more closely examine certain issues and suggest legislation.

The student is just about to turn in her exam when she glances at the back of the last page and notices a bonus question: ‘What is collective responsibility, and how does it apply to the Cabinet?’ The student smiles. She knows this one, so she might as well pick up some extra points.’Collective responsibility,’ she writes, ‘means that when the Cabinet makes a decision about an issue or a policy, all the members must support and defend that decision or policy before Parliament.

In doing so, the Cabinet presents a united front. If a Cabinet member decides that he or she cannot or will not support or defend a decision or policy, he or she would have to resign from the Cabinet.’

Lesson Summary

A few days later, the professor returns the graded exams, and the student is thrilled to see a bright red A at the top of her paper.

She got every question right! She glances back over her work with a wide smile on her face.The prime minister is the head of the British government. After an election, the monarch calls on the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons to form the new government. That leader, thereby, becomes the prime minister, who is officially appointed by the monarch.The prime minister’s duties include assuming responsibility for all the decisions and policies of the British government, appointing government officials, organizing and overseeing government departments and agencies, serving as head of the Cabinet, acting as a liaison with the monarch, participating in the House of Commons, leading his or her political party, and representing the United Kingdom internationally.

The Cabinet is a committee that assists the prime minister in analyzing issues, making decisions, and setting governmental policy. The prime minister appoints his or her Cabinet ministers, who serve as heads of various government departments. The Cabinet acts under the principle of collective responsibility – all members are required to support and defend its decisions and policies.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Define prime minister and Cabinet
  • Recall how a person becomes prime minister or a member of the Cabinet
  • Describe the duties of the prime minister and Cabinet
  • Explain the principle of collective responsibility

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