War cabinet

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A war cabinet is a committee formed by a government in a time of war. It is usually a subset of the full executive cabinet of ministers. It is also quite common for a war cabinet to have senior military officers and opposition politicians as members.

United Kingdom[edit]

First World War[edit]

The 1916 War Cabinet

During the First World War, lengthy cabinet discussions came to be seen as a source of vacillation in Britain's war effort. In December 1916 it was proposed that the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith should delegate decision-making to a small, three-man committee chaired by the Secretary of State for War, David Lloyd George. Asquith initially agreed (provided he retained the right to chair the committee if he chose) before changing his mind after being infuriated by an article in The Times which portrayed the proposed change as a defeat for him. The political crisis grew from this point until Asquith was forced to resign as Prime Minister; he was succeeded by David Lloyd George who thereupon formed a small war cabinet. The original members of the war cabinet were:

Lloyd George, Curzon and Bonar Law served throughout the life of the war cabinet. Later members included:

Unlike a normal peacetime cabinet, few of these men had departmental responsibilities – Bonar Law, and then Chamberlain, served as chancellors of the exchequer, but the rest had no specific portfolio. Among others, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, was never a member of the war cabinet, nor were the service ministers Lord Derby and Sir Edward Carson (the latter did join, but only after leaving the Admiralty).[1]

From the spring (in the northern hemisphere) of 1917, the Imperial War Cabinet was formed. It had representation from the Dominions. Its members were:

Second World War[edit]

Germany invaded Poland early on 1 September 1939, and after to-ing and fro-ing with French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, an ultimatum was presented to the Germans and on its expiry war was declared at 11am on 3 September 1939.

Chamberlain war ministry[edit]

On 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain announced his War Cabinet.

Dominated largely by Conservative ministers who served under Chamberlain's National Government between 1937 and 1939, the additions of Lord Hankey (a former Cabinet Secretary from the First World War) and Winston Churchill (strong anti-appeaser) seemed to give the Cabinet more balance. Unlike Lloyd George's War Cabinet, the members of this one were also heads of Government Departments.

In January 1940, after disagreements with the Chiefs of Staff, Hore-Belisha resigned from the National Government, refusing a move to the post of President of the Board of Trade. He was succeeded by Oliver Stanley.

It was originally the practice for the Chiefs of Staff to attend all military discussions of the Chamberlain War Cabinet. Churchill became uneasy with this, as he felt that when they attended they did not confine their comments to purely military issues. To overcome this, a Military Co-ordination Committee was set up, consisting of the three Service ministers normally chaired by Lord Chatfield. This together with the Service chiefs would co-ordinate the strategic ideas of 'top hats' and 'brass' and agree strategic proposals to put forward to the War Cabinet. Unfortunately, except when chaired by the Prime Minister, the Military Co-ordinating Committee lacked sufficient authority to override a Minister "fighting his corner". When Churchill took over from Chatfield, whilst continuing to represent the Admiralty, this introduced additional problems, and did little to improve the pre-existing ones. Chamberlain announced a further change in arrangements in the Norway debate, but this (and the Military Co-ordination Committee) was overtaken by events, the Churchill War Cabinet being run on rather different principles.[2]

Churchill war ministry[edit]

When he became Prime Minister during the Second World War, Winston Churchill formed a war cabinet, initially consisting of the following members:

Churchill strongly believed that the War Cabinet should be kept to a relatively small number of individuals to allow efficient execution of the war effort. Even so, there were a number of ministers who, though they were not members of the war cabinet, were "Constant Attenders".[3] As the War Cabinet considered issues that pertained to a given branch of the service or government due input was obtained from the respective body.

The War Cabinet would undergo a number of changes in composition over the next five years. On 19 February 1942 a reconstructed War Cabinet was announced by Churchill consisting of the following members:[4]

This War Cabinet was consistent with Churchill's view that members should also hold "responsible offices and not mere advisors at large with nothing to do but think and talk and take decisions by compromise or majority"[5] The War Cabinet often met within The Cabinet War Rooms, particularly during The Blitz of London.[6]

Falklands War[edit]

Thatcher chose not to include any representation of Her Majesty's Treasury on the advice of former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who had been British Minister Resident in the Mediterranean Theatre for the second half of the Second World War), that the security and defence of the armed forces and the war effort should not be compromised for financial reasons.

Persian Gulf War[edit]

Brexit "war Cabinet"[edit]

Following the 2016 referendum on EU membership, which resulted in a vote to leave the EU, the UK Government triggered the withdrawal process under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union[8] on 29 March 2017[9]

Oliver Ilott, of the Institute for Government (an independent think tank), called for Theresa May to establish a peacetime "war Cabinet" to oversee EU withdrawal processes (domestically) and negotiations with the EU, third countries (to secure trade deals), and INGOs (internationally). Ilott wrote:

The rapid pace of the negotiations will require the Government to adopt a 'war Cabinet' approach. It mirrors the approach used by prime ministers of the recent past to make decisions during armed conflicts or incidents like foot and mouth, when normal Cabinet committee processes are too cumbersome to keep pace with the demands of decision making.[10]

The committee (officially the "European Union Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) sub-Committee") is chaired by the Prime Minister. Its members are:[11]


War Cabinet meeting in Melbourne in 1943. Left to right: John Curtin, Sir Frederick Sheddon, Ben Chifley, 'Doc' Evatt, Norm Makin, Arthur Drakeford

At the Imperial Conference in London in 1937, the Australian government had agreed to form a War Cabinet on the outbreak of war.[12] The Full Cabinet approved the formation of the War Cabinet on 26 September 1939.[13] As neither Earle Page's Country Party nor John Curtin's Australian Labor Party would join in a coalition government with Menzies' United Australia Party,[14] the War Cabinet initially consisted of:

In November 1939, the Department of Defence was split up. Street became Minister for Army, Menzies also became Minister for Defence Coordination, and three more ministers joined the War Cabinet:

Following the deaths of Fairbairn, Stewart and Gullett in Canberra air disaster, 1940 and the loss of seats in the Australian federal election, 1940 the War Cabinet of October 1940 consisted of:

The government was replaced by a Labor one on 3 October 1941. A new War Cabinet was formed, consisting of:

Frederick Shedden, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Defence, served as secretary of the War Cabinet,[19] which met regularly throughout the war. It held its last meeting in Canberra on 19 January 1946.[20]

While the Australian war cabinets included only members of the governing party, the Advisory War Council which was established in October 1940 included members of the opposition as well. This body did not have executive powers, but from the formation of the Labor Government in October 1941 it was agreed that its decisions would be treated as War Cabinet decisions, with only some issues being formally referred to the War Cabinet for separate decision. As a result, the Advisory War Council had significant influence on Australia's war effort.[21]

United States[edit]

In response to the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush created a War Cabinet. They met at Camp David on the weekend of 15 September to shape what became the War on Terrorism. The membership was mostly, but not entirely, identical to that of the United States National Security Council.

The Cabinet comprised:

During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy's EXCOMM had some characteristics of a War Cabinet.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Edward Carson joins cabinet after reshuffle - Century Ireland". Rte.ie. Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  2. ^ Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour, Winston S Churchill 1939–1941, Book Club Associates, London 1983 page 40
  3. ^ Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, p.78. Boston, Houghton Mifflin 1950. ISBN 0-395-41058-4
  4. ^ Winston Churchill,The Hinge of Fate, p.76. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company 1950. ISBN 0-395-41058-4
  5. ^ Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, p.75. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company 1950. ISBN 0-395-41058-4
  6. ^ Imperial War Museum. "The Cabinet War Rooms". iwm.org.uk. Retrieved 10 March 2013.
  7. ^ Rouvez, Alain (1994). Disconsolate Empires: French, British and Belgian Military Involvement in Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa. University Press of America. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-8191-9643-9.
  8. ^ "Division 161, European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Hansard Online". hansard.parliament.uk. Retrieved 2018-01-10.
  9. ^ "Subscribe to read". Financial Times. Retrieved 2018-01-10.
  10. ^ "The need for a 'war Cabinet' to run Brexit negotiations". The Institute for Government. 2017-03-28. Retrieved 2018-01-10.
  11. ^ "The Prime Minister expands her Brexit war Cabinet". The Institute for Government. 2017-11-07. Retrieved 2018-01-10.
  12. ^ Horner 1996, p. 2
  13. ^ Horner 1996, p. 3
  14. ^ Hasluck 1952, pp. 112–113
  15. ^ Horner 1996, pp. 2–3
  16. ^ Horner 1996, p. 4
  17. ^ Hasluck 1952, p. 574
  18. ^ Hasluck 1952, p. 577
  19. ^ Hasluck 1952, pp. 421–422
  20. ^ Horner 1996, p. 197
  21. ^ Campbell, Heather (2004). "The War Cabinet & Advisory War Council". Doing the Best for the Country : Behind the scenes of Australia's wartime decision making 1939-45. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Retrieved 9 January 2018.