There are limitations to the prime ministers powers, despite the prime minister role being the highest in UK politics. The prime minister still maintains many powers but one main limitation that there is, is the prime ministers’ party. Ministerial appointments require some recognition of the need for political balance and administrative competence. There is pressure from colleagues or the media to appoint certain people- all Prime Ministers at least listen to advice from senior colleagues before making appointments. The Prime Ministers ability to control the flow of business is restricted.
Apart from drawing up the party manifesto, most Prime Ministers do not initiate policy- they have a small staff and most expertise and detailed information is located in individual departments If the prime minister loses support of their party, he also indirectly loses the ability to pass bills. A good example of a party turning against their leader was when Thatcher was governing the country. A knock on effect of this would be the country will lose confidence in this party and its leader because citizens will start to believe that the lack of harmony in the party will start to reflect on the nation.
Another factor that limits a Prime Minister’s power is the fact that he is seen to be publicly responsible for any major mishap that occurs during his time in power. The American President, Richard Nixon had a plaque on his desk which stated “the buck stops here”. As the Prime Minister is the person in charge, the buck stops with him. When things go well, the Prime Minister can bath in the glory but the opposite is also true. As the most known member of the government, it is he that the public hold to be accountable when things go wrong.
Anthony Eden was held responsible for the Suez episode in 1956; Edward Heath was seen as the person responsible for the 1974 miners’ strike when a three-day working week was introduced; Margaret Thatcher was held responsible for the problems associated with the Poll Tax etc. Tony Blair has been accused of being too friendly with America’s President Bush and not being critical enough of the President’s foreign policy designs. Blair got the blame for taking the nation into Iraq, a war that didn’t need to fort by Britain. Another limit of the Prime Mister’s power would be a revolt in their cabinet.
Membership of the Cabinet depends on the Prime Minister and it would be rare for a politician to start conflict with his leader as such. However, John Major did experience trouble with his Cabinet and Tony Blair has been accused of by-passing his Cabinet for the sake of a ‘kitchen cabinet’ and the advice of “special advisors”. The political relationship he has with his chancellor, Gordon Brown, has been dissected by the media and Blair will be aware that it was a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, who started the downfall of Margaret Thatcher.
In Ireland at the moment something along the lines of Cowen’s cabinet is turning against him and there will be a vote of no confidence against his leadership. A Prime Minister may also feel it necessary to respond to a pressure group. In 1997, many people felt that the Labour Party made its position clear on fox hunting – that it could not be tolerated in a civilised society. Having won the 1997 election, it was believed that legal steps would be taken to outlaw fox hunting.
That lead to the creation of the Countryside Alliance which is a well-funded pressure group dedicated to the maintenance of a traditional country life which includes the right to hunt foxes. At present, in August 2002, fox hunting is still legal and the arguments have got bogged down into allowing licensed hunts, a free Commons vote etc. The Countryside Alliance has already organised one very large demonstration in London and has organised another for September 2002.
No Prime Minister would admit that their policies are shaped by un-elected pressure groups but it is clear that in this case, the impact of the Countryside Alliance has been marked. Though the Prime Minister has a great deal of political power, this power is also balanced by the fact that there are limitations to that power. While a Prime Minister has the backing of his party, his position is secure; if he loses that support, then his position becomes very vulnerable. Any Prime Minister would always ensure that he knows what the opinions of the back-benchers are.