Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet Positions and Their Roles in Government (UK) [2013]

What is the Cabinet of the United Kingdom?

The Cabinet of the United Kingdom is the main decision making body of the country and consists of the Prime Minister and up to 22 Cabinet ministers of his choosing. These tend to be the most qualified, competent and trustworthy of all government ministers.

Ministers who are chosen to be part of the Cabinet are known as 'cabinet ministers' and are usually selected from the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

To put it simply, Cabinet ministers are the heads of government departments in the UK and advise the Prime Minister on specific issues in their area that require a specialised degree of knowledge.

Most positions in the Cabinet begin with the title "Secretary of State for X" and each minister of this position in theory can exercise exactly the same powers as each other.

The Cabinet heads Her Majesty's Privy Council which is a larger body of Government ministers that includes members of the Opposition (largely shadow cabinet ministers).

The following positions are typically held in the Cabinet under a given UK Government. However, readers should take note that Cabinet positions can change and be rearranged. For this reason it is important to make sure that there have not been new reshuffles of the Cabinet when attempting to learn the current Cabinet.

The country home Chequers in Buckinghamshire, given to the Prime Minister during his office.
The country home Chequers in Buckinghamshire, given to the Prime Minister during his office. | Source

Prime and Deputy Minister

The Prime Minister is the leader of the Cabinet but also always holds the following two positons:

  • First Lord of the Treasury
    It is not actually the Prime Minister that is entitled to live in 10 Downing Street but the First Lord of the Treasury. However, since in modern times you cannot be one without the other, it is commonly thought that it is being the Prime Minister that means you are entitled to live there. In reality, being the Prime Minister entitles you to live in a country house in Buckinghamshire called Chequers and not 10 Downing Street.
  • Minister for the Civil Service
    This position was created so that there was a constitutional convention ensuring the authority of the First Lord of the Treasury over all of the civil servants. Thus, the job role includes managing the civil service and deciding its pay. The various duties of this position can be delegated to other ministers, as Gordon Brown did during his office.

Deputy Prime Minister

  • Unlike most deputy positions, the Deputy Prime Minister does not automatically take the Prime Minister's position in the case that he leaves his position. Interestingly, it is not even in the constitution that a Deputy Prime Minister should exist and his role in Government therefore is not clear or fixed. For this reason it is difficult to determine exactly what a Deputy Prime Minister does in the UK but it is certain that he will hold some sort of practical position. In a coalition government (like that of the 2010 election between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats) the leader of the smaller party (Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats) is appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in order to give him more authority within the Cabinet.

Secretaries of State

The rest of the Cabinet ministers are secretaries of state for X and their job role is self-explanatory: they lead their particular department and advise the Prime Minister on issues that relate to their expertise. A link for each is provided in the case that readers wish to read more on particular positions.

  1. First Secretary of State
    This position, like First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service, is just an honorific title that entitles 'seniority' over all similar departments. In the case of the First Secretary of State, the position holder holds seniority over all the other Secretaries of State but has no more powers than them. Practically, all this means is that these titles obligate an organisational role for various events.
  2. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
  3. Secretary of State for the Home Department
  4. Secretary of State for Defence
  5. Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
  6. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  7. Secretary of State for Justice
  8. Secretary of State for Education
  9. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
  10. Secretary of State for Health
  11. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  12. Secretary of State for International Development
  13. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
  14. Secretary of State for Transport
  15. Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
  16. Secretary of State for Scotland
  17. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
  18. Secretary of State for Wales


The leader of the Labour Party after the 2010 election Ed Miliband, who served Leader of the Opposition during the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.
The leader of the Labour Party after the 2010 election Ed Miliband, who served Leader of the Opposition during the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. | Source

Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition

Considered as an 'alternative' prime minister and also known as simply the 'leader of the opposition', this role involves choosing the twenty two or less members of the shadow cabinet. The role also comes with its own extra salary and requires the attendance of question time and other events where the prime minister is required.

This role also means you are part of the Privy Council.

Shadow Cabinet
The shadow cabinet exists to scrutinise the Cabinet ministers and therefore for each minister in the Cabinet there is a similar position in the Shadow Cabinet. Thus for example, the Secretary of State for Transport will have a Shadow Secretary of State for Transport scrutinising his decisions and often providing alternative ideas and options to consider.

What is the Privy Council?

The Privy Council is as old as the monarchy in the UK and dates back to when the King or Queen of the country would have a council of members to advise them on their issues.

In the modern day, this council has been replaced by the Cabinet as the final decision-making body, with Cabinet ministers advising the Prime Minister instead of a monarch.

Typically, only a small fraction of council members actually attend the meetings but it is still held as a position of great honour - the members of the Privy Council are given the prefiix "the Right Honourable" (RT) afore their name e.g. the Right Honourable Ed Miliband. This title is given to members for life (even when they no longer serve the council) and there is usually about 500 people who hold such a title.

Interestingly, each member must swear an oath of secrecy about the events that occur within the council. However, the Privy Council Office assures the public that in reality almost everything that is said is transparent to the public.

Who is Appointed Into the Council?

  • Every member of the Cabinet
  • Leaders of the main parties
  • Senior Judges
  • The Speaker
  • Archbishops

Who Attends Privy Council Meetings?

Each meeting is held in the presence of the monarch or a representative in his or her name at his or her place of residence (Buckingham Palace). In addition to the monarch, the Lord President of the Council also attends. After that, it is only a select few Privy Councillors who are called to the meetings.

What Powers Does the Privy Council Have?
The Privy Council holds no real legislative or executive role but in rare cases have had the power to work independently of the Government to perform acts that Government could not do legally. A recent example is the decision to refuse the inhabitants of Chagos island to return to their homes so that a US naval base could be built there instead.

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