Parliament is the legislative body of the UK; it is composed of bicameral parliaments; The House of Commons (HOC) is responsible for considering and proposing new laws as well as scrutinizing governmental policies and legislation, oversees governments’ finances and administration. The House of Lords (HOL) participates within the law-making process, investigates matters of public interest independently and examines the administration of government.
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The party with the largest number of members in the HOC forms the government under the office of the Prime Minister (PM). This arrangement exists by a whereby the Monarch must appoint a PM to oversee government and lead the HOC; this position has evolved overtime as a consequence of historical and political acts with origins in the early 1680s. This appointment results in a transfer of power from the sovereign to parliament under the Royal Prerogative Powers (Bradley 2011).
The role of the PM is to serve as the head of the Her Majesty’s government having been elected as the ‘premiership’ winning party in the UK elections. He / she are not elected as head of their respective party by the public but from within their respective party (Braizer, 1999).
Serving as the Chief of the Executive, the PM has a number of functions which include; overseeing Parliament, overseeing the operation of the Civil Service and government agencies, serving as the link among the executive and legislative branches of the assembly, responsibility for policy and governmental decisions ensuring that they are scrutinized and implemented once Royal Ascent has been granted and serving as the figure head in the HOC (Heffernan, 2005). They are responsible for managing a number of relations which include those between; the Government and the Monarch, Government and the Opposition and between the UK and the devolved assemblies.
Through the power of patronage, the PM has the power to select the Cabinet ‘The Executive’ and can appoint ministers to the Cabinet and appoint ministers to lead on specific policy areas such as education, health, foreign and commonwealth; extending the ‘ministerial responsibility’ for the respective areas of work to them.
The PM will also appoint special advisors and other political advisors within the Cabinet, on the basis of political viewpoint, skills and expertise.
The PM is required to ensure that the order of precedency is upheld in Cabinet as well as ensuring that ministers adhere to and uphold the ministerial code. Holding power over ministerial conduct (1997 revised 2007) and if required they can appoint, reshuffle or dismiss ministers.
The PM can use their power of ‘collective responsibility’ to silence any critics avoiding dissention and ensuring cohesion exists with the cabinet. Decisions made with Cabinet meetings chaired by the PM must have support of the ministers irrespective of agreement on such matters, they are required to publicly support the PM’s decision / mandate, failure to do so can result in dismissal / resignation as was the case of the late Robin Cook, Leader of the Commons and former Foreign Secretary, 2003.
In order to encourage support from the cabinet the PM can use their power of patronage as a tool for reward and recognition bringing about change in behaviour and ensuring loyalty. It could be argued that this is both a power and a limitation, to some it is perceived as an elitist method of promotion on the basis of political support and rather than on the merit of work.
Whilst the PM has many powers, one of the greatest limitations is the threat and in fighting from within their own respective party; without majority support, their position is weakened significantly as was the case with Margaret Thatcher in 1990, her former cabinet colleague Geoffrey Howe initiated a revolt against her leadership style leading to her resignation as PM.
Interestingly, her successor John Major was subjected to a revolt following the lack of support from his party on the issue of Britain developing greater links with Europe, when the 1997 general election was undertaken he and the Conservatives suffered the largest electoral defeat in history.
Without consulting the electorate, the governing party can at any time seek to replace the PM, as was the case in 2007 when Tony Blair was replaced by Gordon Brown as PM.
The style of leadership style (Norton) of a PM can work for or against them during their time in office (Norton 2013). Thatcher gained significant popularity in the early 80s but went on to lose support as she was perceived as being too over-bearing and out of touch. Her famous statement ‘This Lady’s not for turning’ demonstrated how aggressive her leadership style was.
Blair’s leadership was strong and presidential like, he, like Thatcher did not always use his Cabinet for scrutiny or consultation giving rise to accusations of utilizing a ‘kitchen-cabinet’ and increased use of special advisors, ultimately this caused much mistrust and dissention within the party and executive (Buckley, 2006).
Although the PM serves as head of Cabinet; Ministerial members of the cabinet have equal powers ‘primus inter pares’, yet the PM is accountable to the nation and the electorate and is not above reproach. They are responsible not just for their decisions but those of their ministers.
How the PM deals with contentious political or social issues and how they seek resolution can impact greatly on their popularity and confidence in them as a leader (Quinn, 2012) as was the case with Heath (Miners’ Strike 1974), Thatcher (Poll Tax 1989) and Blair (Iraq 2003).
Brown’s popularity waned over the issue of calling a general election (2007) and tax rate reductions (2008) resulting in a call for leadership contest, this was usurped on the basis of his handling of the financial crisis (2008).
Media can grossly influence public perception on the PM depending on their readership’s left or right wing views (McCombs, 2013).
To conclude, the PM is granted numerous powers, many of which bestowed from the Monarch and others from their position of PM and leader of their respective party. All powers come with limitations; the powers will work for or against a PM. Fundamentally their position is dependent on their interpretation and execution of said powers, a majority support of ministers on their mandate or how well he or she can secure their support.
‘The office of Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and makes of it’ H H Asquith (Hennessy, 2001).
Their leadership style can affect how ministers react; their position on changing legislation, how accountable they are politically and socially or when subjected to scrutiny can sway the balance of power to eventually become a limitation.
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BRADLEY, A., 2011. The sovereignty of Parliament-form or substance? The changing constitution, 23, pp. 54-56.
BRAIZER, R., 1999. Constitutional Practice: The Foundations of British Government. Oxford University Press on Demand.
BUCKLEY, S., 2006. Prime Minister and Cabinet. Edinburgh University Press.
HENNESSY, P., 2001. The Prime Minister: the office and its holders since 1945. Palgrave Macmillan.
MCCOMBS, M., 2013. Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. John Wiley & Sons.
NORTON, P. and JONES, B. 2014. Politics UK. 8th Edition. Harlow, Pearson
QUINN, T., 2012. Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain. Springer.
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