The prime minister’s office embodies a great concentration of power, even though most of it depends on convention rather than law. The prime minister is just one actor in a wider, interdependent core executive where policy-making takes places in ‘a complex web of institutions, networks and practices surrounding the prime minister, cabinet, cabinet committees, and their official counterparts’ (Rhodes in Allen and Ward, 2009:238). But the prime minister is a dominant figure, being both head of the executive branch and leader of the majority party in the legislature. However, this subject is difficult to approach as the position of the Prime Minister has traditionally lacked clear legal definition, and the extent to which the UK has Prime Ministerial government can mostly be drawn from examples. In the following paragraphs I will present the formal and informal powers of the Prime Minister and try to assess the extent to which the UK has Prime Ministerial government.
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Prime ministerial government has replaced Cabinet government over time, in the aftermath of World War II. The post of the prime minister emerged during the 18th century, while the Cabinet had been the effective executive. The prime minister gradually became the head of the government, in the process acquiring the right means to exercise most of the old powers of the Crown. The convention that the prime minister must sit in the House of Commons emerged in the 20th century, which was a step forward as modern prime ministers derive their authority and democratic legitimacy from their position as elected leader of the majority party in the Commons. The formal election of party leaders developed in the 20th century. However, the image of a strong, dominating prime minister emerged during and after the World Wars, with Lloyd George and Winston Churchill who were depicted as war heroes. As a result, individual power and concentrated leadership became recognized as a necessity under conditions of crisis. A stronger political element within no. 10 developed with the establishment of the Political Office in 1964 and the Policy Unit in 1974. These creations are a recognition of the need to cater for the prime minister’s party political role and acknowledge the growing demands of political management of the media. During his time in no. 10 Blair brought ‘his people’ in the office, which echoes with the way a U.S. president gathers his team, increasing his power. The British executive is a parliamentary executive, not separately elected unlike the US president, with the PM heading the executive and being the leader of the majority party in the Legislature. To this respect, the PM can acquire sufficient power for the UK Government to be called Prime Ministerial.
The British Government is usually noted for its high level of institutional and individual integration but over time we have witnessed prime ministers taking full advantage of their formal and informal powers, using their position in a smart way, determining analysts and writers to talk about a British Presidency. Formal powers are at the hand of every PM but it is his or hers decisions of how to use them, extending or not its powers to other areas; he or she is head of the executive, head of government policy, party leader, chief appointing officer, including appointing and dismissing ministers, and dispenser of patronage and leader of the party in parliament. What is considered the most useful and important of the prime minister’s powers is the power to ‘hire and fire’. He or she selects around 100 politicians by appointing the Cabinet of normally 20-23 members, ministers of state, under-secretaries of state, whips and law officers and his party receive the majority seats in the House of Commons. As the British prime minister possesses most of the Crown’s former powers, some see him more powerful that the U.S. president, especially through this power of ‘fire and hire’ which is an important source of control. Ministerial changes happen quite often, as it is the case for Tony Blair who changed half of his first Cabinet after his second election, in 2001; before the 2005 elections four more from the original Cabinet had departed, with Gordon Brown being an exception. PM plays a key role in the selection of individuals for a wide diversity of other leading posts in national life; his influence extends to over the creation of peers, the appointment of top civil servants at the permanent secretary and deputy secretary levels, plus responsibility for recommendations of honours in the various New Year, Queens Birthday and special honours lists. ‘The prime minister is responsible for directing and organising the work of the government at the highest level’ (Leach, 2006:184). He sets broad policy objectives and outlines short-term and long-term strategies for fulfilling these goals and he is a national leader, representing the country at international conferences and meetings, signing treaties and hosting the leaders of other states.
One of the most important formal powers is that the PM can request power of dissolution from the monarch; it is believed that this power was a weapon to discipline his own government and party when faced with ‘dissent’ but such an action could have major consequences as well, by damaging his position, although it can strengthen his position against the opposition parties. The role of a national leader, especially during crisis is of much importance as well, giving the PM the status of a national hero, as it is the case for Churchill during 1940-1945, Thatcher during the Falkland war in 1982 which won her an election, Major during the Gulf war 1991 and Blair in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The relationship between the UK and the EU was as an important aspect where PMs had to consider the wishes of their electorate, affecting their popularity. A PM draws up the Cabinet agenda, deciding the content, terms of reference and chairs of Cabinet Committees, while he chairs Cabinet meetings, playing a key part in the organization of the meeting. Thus PM has considerable influence over the direction and outcome of Cabinet discussions. During this process PMs may also use manipulative behaviour such as delay, verbosity or ambiguity, as sometimes Cabinet have complained of being bounced into decisions because the PM can conclude against the majority view. He makes decisions about the structure of government such as allocation of duties between departments and can abolish and form new departments. For example new departments have been developed, such as Department of International Development, Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, replacing the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. A PM has overall responsibility for the work of the civil service.- Developments since 1979- significant strengthening of the pm’s position in rel to Whitehall- Thatcher-Major era there have been large scale change carried through .
Despite overall responsibility PMs can take special personal interest in key policy areas which, at times, have caused misunderstandings and issues to arise within the government. Many PMs have pursued decisive roles in matters of economic policy, while others, notably Blair, have intervened in foreign and defence policy, at times overshadowing their foreign and defence secretaries. James Callaghan has been more active in education policy, industrial relations and incomes policy while Margaret Thatcher had personal interest in a wide range of areas, such as: the management of economy, in foreign policy, especially Europe and the special relations with the US, trade unions and industrial relations, changes to the civil services and NHS, the introduction of the poll tax in local government. Major and Blair were involved in the process of peace making in Northern Ireland. Regardless of the fact that leadership is a collective process, the PM, unlike the US president is not a single-person executive, but differences in style exist as they have different personalities; Tony Blair and especially Margaret Thatcher are known for leading from the front, whereas John Major and Harold Wilson both had a more consensual style. During crisis prime ministers become national figures in society and Thatcher is one of the best examples. She tried to change the face of Britain becoming, in fact, the face of Britain. She altered the nature and vocabulary of political debate and changed the priorities of the British political agenda, and centralized the government and its objectives around the motivating force of her own convictions that government largely became synonymous with Thatcher’s persona. ‘It was possible to claim that the government was the institutional embodiment of her personal ideas and drives.’ ( rise of b presidency p 2)
‘However, the prime minister expects ministerial colleagues to support government policy according to the convention of collective responsibility’ (Leach, 2009:184). PM along time have tried to strengthen their own pol support (Churchill, blairvol 2 p 64) don’t know what to do with this one
‘No10 Downing Street is the most powerful office in British politics. Yet is also the least written about of any of the great departments of state, and perhaps the least understood.’ (Rhodes, 2000:63). Literature on the PM’s powers and whether they have become presidential and to what extent is vast and inconclusive and we are still not fully informed of how the office actually operates. The premier has two official roles, one that relates to government and a political role which relates to his party and public opinion. The PM’s office transformed, developed from the informal assistance given by a small number of aids in the 1860s to the special arrangements of the 1990s. Cabinet ministers have often resigned claiming that they have been undermined by the PMs Advisers, as George Brown Labour’s foreign secretary did in 1969 and Nigel Lawson, Conservative Chancellor of the exchequer in 1989. The influence of a ‘kitchen cabinet’ or the creation of a PM’s Department undermines the role of the Cabinet departmental ministers and verges on the unconstitutional. The executive is segmented, but not fragmented. It is not wholly pluralistic, because power resources are not evenly distributed among all actors. ‘He or she can predominate only by acquiring and using a number of personal resources and making full use of the institutional resources that are available. Personal power resources enhance the use of these institutional resources’ (Heffernan, 2003:350). The prime minister’s powers rely on its ability to gain the respect and cooperation of key ministers and civil servants, on his authority over colleagues. Usually the prime minister wants to control the party while the party tries to influence the prime minister, but if the party supports the PM until the end he will be more powerful.
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Another important aspect which needs to be taken into consideration is the unwritten constitution and the legal accountability of the executive in Britain. Due to the uncodified constitution and the absence of any officially accepted definition of the role of the PM , prime ministerial accountability is a key concept in liberal democracy, and yet not embodied in constitutional theory as in the case of the American president. The written constitution of the USA provides legal restraints on the president, giving the possibility of driving the president from office through legal action, whereas in the UK such a situation is unlikely if not impossible. The British Courts do not have the power to scrutinise prime ministerial conduct, because the pm does not possess executive power. The pm is not responsible for legislation, thus cannot be held responsible. Usually the departmental ministers answer to parliament for what happens in their departments, as the pm does not have responsibilities for departmental matters. However, the pm is clearly not above the law or moral censure; they still remain responsible for their personal conduct and they can be held accountable by the electorate and their power is highly reliable on the support of their party, cabinet and the media. ‘The loyalty and vocal support of backbenchers is crucial to the prime minister’s ability to dominate the Commons’ (Thomas, 2004:7)
A Prime Minister’s position and hence his influence with his colleagues depends partly on his personality but also on whether they see his judgment and policies to be good and successful. If he transforms the underlying power in the office into the successful exercise of power he will be more respected and that in turn will further reinforce his ability to wield power with his colleagues. His relationship with the public is also important. On the other hand, the process can be the reverse. When things begin to go wrong, the influence over the House which a prime minister might once have had can disappear. A setback in relations with a group can lead to the loss of support in other areas, which can lead to discontent within the party; Colleagues may start thinking of a change in leadership and government backbenchers no longer give their support during Questioning Time. After these processes there will be rumours in Westminster that the PM is past his prime and a change of leader will most likely occur through the support of the media. For example, after Thatcher’s adoration came a series of policy errors in the late 1980s and disenchantment with her style of leadership lead to a sharp decline in support for the Conservative party, and later to her resignation.
The relationship between parliament and prime minister is rather paradoxical. On the one hand, premiers are totally dependent on the House of Commons for their continued existence, and on the other, they are usually in a dominant position over the majority party in parliament. This is one cause of control by the executive of the legislature and allows the government to get its way in terms of legislation and public policy. Executive dominance over parliament is a marked aspect of the British system of government. However, the extent to which the Prime Minister controls the government is debatable and depends on the context and the period under analysis. But one cannot deny that the UK premier has, despite the formal powers, informal powers and resources which can make him more powerful that a president.
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