A “shadow cabinet” is formed when the opposition party in a parliamentary system appoints members to serve in each of the cabinet-level positions — even though the members have no real authority. They simply serve to help set policy for the opposition party.
This practice is closely associated with the United Kingdom, but is also carried out in a number of other countries.
A shadow cabinet has no actual power, but stands ready to take the reins if the party ever returns to power. The shadow cabinet also keeps a close eye on the actions of the actual cabinet.
The British parliament’s official website defines shadow cabinet as follows:
The Shadow Cabinet is the team of senior spokespeople chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to mirror the Cabinet in Government. Each member of the shadow cabinet is appointed to lead on a specific policy area for their party and to question and challenge their counterpart in the Cabinet. In this way the Official Opposition seeks to present itself as an alternative government-in-waiting.
Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand and South Africa also use shadow cabinets. India has at times used the system, but never on a national level. However, various media outlets in India have argued that the country should adopt the system. For one thing, they argue, having a shadow cabinet allows the opposition to learn more about the actual functioning of the government, so that they are ready to govern when they come into power.
The New Indian Express, for example, has argued that:
In India, a cabinet minister is at an advantage when it comes to a parliamentary debate. He has a vast number of bureaucrats assisting him to prepare his side. Without a shadow minister handling a shadow portfolio with his own teams of experts, the Opposition is at a disadvantage. Its members would not know who would be tackling the cabinet minister concerned in the debate.
The result is blind stalling of parliamentary process and vapid sloganeering, often culminating in a walk-out. Sometimes, the people are entertained with some hurling of projectiles like files, slippers and even chairs at each other peppered with swearing that would make a drunkard blush.
In countries with a shadow cabinet, the press often covers shadow ministers closely. After all, shadow ministers tend to be prominent members of their party, so their ups and downs get a lot of attention in the media. So do any changes to their position in the shadow cabinet.
After an opposition member of parliament was found guilty of drunk driving, Australia’s ABC News wrote: “Victorian MP Tim Smith has apologized and resigned from the shadow cabinet after crashing his car while more than twice over the legal blood-alcohol limit.”
And in the UK, even a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet – for all intents and purposes, a purely symbolic act – can make headlines.
One outlet breathlessly covered a shift to the nation’s shadow cabinet as follows: “Labour leader Keir Starmer’s reshuffle of his shadow cabinet has ended up proving far-reaching in scope. This changing of the guard is clearly the sequel to a piecemeal reshuffle in May that was botched because of a struggle between Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner.”