We commented on an aspect of the Draft Cabinet Manual at pp 187-9 of the book, in our consideration of constitutional conventions. (The Draft of the full Cabinet Manual was published in December 2010 and was put out to public consultation.)
The Cabinet Manual is an extremely important and very useful document. The published version is a very significant improvement on the earlier Draft. The document is now fully referenced and is much clearer as to its aims and effect. It does not seek to establish or to change any constitutional rules or practices: it seeks rather to describe a range of pre-existing constitutional rules and practices as seen from inside the Executive. It is, as it were, the Government’s official interpretation of the constitution.
Among the most important passages of the Cabinet Manual are the paragraphs that set out the principles of Government formation in the event of a hung Parliament (paras 2.7-2.17). The relevant passage from the December 2010 Draft Cabinet Manual is extracted at pp 188-89. The newly published Cabinet Manual improves on that passage in two ways, as follows:
- The Draft had included as a footnote Nick Clegg’s suggestion that “whichever party has won the most votes and the most seats … has the first right to seek to govern”. This was a statement of his party’s policy (in 2010) and was not reflective of constitutional practice. It has been removed from the Cabinet Manual as published. This is to be welcomed.
- The Draft had stated that the “incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government …”. Few commentators considered that this was constitutionally accurate, and the rule as stated in the Cabinet Manual is now as follows: “it remains a matter for the Prime Minister … to judge the appropriate time at which to resign …” (para 2.10). Again, this is to be welcomed.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee was one of three parliamentary committees to publish a report on the Draft Cabinet Manual: see here. (Additional reports were published by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and by the Public Administration Committee.) While the Constitution Committee’s report was seen as being rather critical, it is to be noted that almost all of its conclusions and recommendations have been acted upon in the Cabinet Manual as now published. In its new, improved version, the Cabinet Manual will be an invaluable source for all students of the British Constitution.