How powerful is the Prime Minister?
Lord Oxford once judged that, ‘The office of prime minster is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it. ’ This idea is best explained by Crossman’s prime ministerial government model. This is the theory that: since the development of disciplined political parties and, certainly over the past fifty years; PMs have become more powerful and dominant because party loyalty focuses primarily on them as the leader. This is due to the PM being both the head of the civil service and leader of the largest party in the commons.
However, there are also factors that constrain the amount of power a PM can wield and for over half a century there has been discussion over whether Britain has a ‘government by prime minister. ’ This is due to the idea by some, that the PM is a ‘primus inter pares,’ first among equals. This term refers to the fact that while the PM is ‘first’ in name, he or she still remains ‘equal’ to the rest of their government. In this sense, Smith’s argument that the PM is constrained by a complex web of relationships in which he must function applies, this is also known as the Cabinet government model.
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However, to really examine how powerful the PM is, we must also look at the structural explanations as well as the theoretical ones. The official guidance published by the Cameron government in the form of the Cabinet Manual (2011) describes the PM as the head of government, chief adviser to the sovereign and chair of the cabinet. The PM is thus responsible for appointing and dismissing, promoting and demoting all government ministers, orchestrating the cabinet committee system, and the overall organisation of the executive and the allocation of functions between ministers and departments.
The manual describes the cabinet as ‘the ultimate decision making body of government,’ while the PM is said to have a ‘unique position of authority’ and ‘will usually take the lead on significant matters. ’ Whilst all of these things taken together indicate that the office of PM is very powerful, it is also important to realise that there are limits to his or her power and that each factor can be discussed in terms of extent. Arguably, one of the most significant powers of the PM is the power of patronage.
This refers to a PM’s ability to appoint and sack, promote and demote any government minster. This power, therefore, guarantees a degree of loyalty from most MPs because their position is ultimately vested in the hands of the PM; they’re reluctant to go against their leader, through fear of losing their jobs. The nature of patronage also means that PMs are more likely to appoint ministers who share his or her political or ideological preferences.
A classic example of this, was Thatcher’s government in the years 1979-83, where she consolidated her position by transforming her cabinet from one dominated by the ‘wets’ (One Nation conservatives) to one in which all the key economic posts rested in the hands of the ‘drys’ (Thatcherite Conservatives). Moreover, when Brown replaced Blair as PM, he carried out the biggest cabinet reshuffle for over one hundred years, 11 members of the old cabinet either stood down or were dismissed and 9 new members entered the office, 7 of whom never previously held a cabinet position.
In doing this, Brown hoped to show that a change of PM also meant a change of government. However, the power of patronage may be constrained in many ways. Some PMs recognise the importance of keeping their opposition inside government, where they’re less dangerous due the convention of collective cabinet responsibility and cannot therefore, publicly criticise government. Although, this also means that decisions are harder to reach. This could be seen when Peter Mandelson was made business secretary and brought into Brown’s cabinet in 2008, despite the fact the two men were bitter enemies.
This is an example of a PM conciliating a powerful colleague because of their high standing within the party. Moreover, Thatcher’s cabinet also consisted of some opposition MPs (Heseltine, Howe and Clarke) who made sure that Thatcher didn’t always get it her own way. Furthermore, a PM has to make sure that the composition of their cabinet reflects the different factions and ideological leanings of their party to coincide with the idea of party unity. This could be seen within both Blair’s cabinet which contained some ‘Brownites,’ as well as in the Thatcher’s cabinet which contained some ‘wets. Moreover, although it is possible for a PM to dominate their party with the power of patronage, it is not always certain that their party will accept this. For instance, in the case of Thatcher, her disregard for her party resulted in her falling four votes short of being 15 per cent ahead of her nearest challenger in the leadership election. In the words of Heywood, ‘they acted to save themselves and their party, rather than the PM. ’ Furthermore, since 2010 the need to maintain the coalition has significantly altered the PM’s power of patronage.
Under the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform the PM is obliged to consult and agree with the deputy PM, Nick Clegg, over the appointment, reshuffling and sacking of Liberal Democrat ministers. Although, the PM hires and fires the ministers himself, he must fully consult with Clegg before he makes a decision on anyone. Another similar constraint on patronage derived from the coalition is a limitation on the PM’s normal discretion in relation to the establishment of cabinet committees, the appointment of their members, and the framing of their terms of reference, which have to be agreed between the PM and deputy PM.
Another power the PM possess is that of cabinet management, this enables him to chair meetings, set the agenda, tend to sum up decisions and control the minutes. For example, under Blair, cabinet meetings rarely lasted an hour and he cut the total time for them down to 25 minutes once a week. Furthermore, Hennessey comments that Thatcher was also known for adapting the official minutes of cabinet debates to suit her view, she once remarked that the “cabinet does what I tell them. Thatcher was best known for her transformational style of leadership because of her strong ideological convictions, personal resolution and political will. All of these elements of her leadership led to Hennessey to detail that she ruled her cabinet with an iron hand. This domination of her cabinet lends her style of leadership to the prime ministerial model. Furthermore, a PM may dominate their cabinet by bypassing in completely. A prime example of this was when Blair didn’t consult with or listen to his cabinet over the building of the Millennium Dome and more importantly the Iraq War.
Moreover, the PM also has the power to choose the secretary who takes notes at cabinet meetings, and is able to use this to their advantage. Thatcher, for example, sometimes eliminated the opposition to her policies from cabinet meetings and then claimed that her entire cabinet had agreed on said policy. Therefore, it’s quite simple for the PM to bypass their cabinet. Alternatively, rather than bypass the principle of meeting with ministers completely, a PM may consult with a single minister or small group through the use of bilaterals or kitchen cabinets.
Although, this does mean that the cabinet is consulted with much less frequently. This method was popularised by Blair, who was well known for his use of bilaterals and credited with the creation of the kitchen cabinet, so called because he would hold meetings with his ministers in his kitchen. Richards comments that Cameron has been known to work in a similar way, he writes that ‘Cameron operates within a complicated network of formal, and, crucially, informal groups. ” Both styles of Cameron and Blair here, point towards the core executive theory of government.
However, the presence of ‘big beasts’ in a PM’s cabinet can be a great limit on their power. This was true for Thatcher, whose cabinet contained many ‘big beasts’ such as, Heseltine, Howe and Clarke who ensured on many occasions that she didn’t always get the all the decisions her own way. Moreover, their strategically timed resignations, which contributed to her eventual downfall, are a reminder that the cabinet can, and does, bite back. The presence of ‘big beasts’ were also a prominent part of Blair’s cabinet, with the ‘dual monarchy,’ as Rhodes describes it between him and Brown.
This is clear, in that from 1997, Blair handed unprecedented power over to Brown and the treasury, which he used to veto the UK’s entry into the Euro against the will of Blair. This incident clearly shows that the PM’s jurisdiction did not take precedence over that of a cabinet minister. Furthermore, a similar predicament arises in terms of the coalition with something Richards describes as a ‘dual fiefdom,’ this occurs when Cameron has to defer to his deputy on key issues as part of the coalition agreement.
Moreover, the introduction of the coalition government has redefined cabinet meetings and their importance. It has been reported that the cabinet meets every Tuesday for up to two hours; this is significantly longer than the reduced 25 minute meetings seen during Blair’s premiership. This comes as a result of the fact that a coalition government needs more time to make compromises on both sides to ensure complacency. In the case of our current government the cabinet style of leadership certainly seems most apt.
This style could clearly be seen in the run up to the 2010 spending review, where the cabinet discussed the proposed cuts at least nine times. Furthermore, a PM’s access to the media can be a major strength to their power. This was something Blair discovered in the lead up to his party’s landslide election victory in 1997, where he had the support of all the Murdoch papers on his side. Similarly, Cameron also enjoyed this luxury and it was the reason as Heywood puts it his ‘popularity held up well in his first year in office, despite his controversial policy agenda. This was partly down to the support of nine of the UK’s national dallies for one or the other of the coalition parties. Moreover, since 1945, Britain has seen the expansion of the ‘broadcast’ media, and increasingly the ‘new’ media i. e. cable and satellite TV and the internet, these have all increased the flow of political information to the public. The new 24 hour news channels have strengthened the PM’s position, they have allowed the PM to appeal to the public, “over the heads” of cabinet colleagues and the like, straight to the people.
In recent years, there has been a growth in so-called ‘personality politics,’ which by its nature, guarantees a greater emphasis on the PM as the sole spokesperson for their government. This means that the public are more likely to view the PM as the dominant figure in government. Such focus could be seen during the TV debates that formed part of the 2010 election campaign for all parties; whilst Cameron and Clegg shone, Brown was left behind; this was probably down to his poor portrayal in the media which lasted his whole time in office.
Moreover, the increased use of spin doctors, such as Campbell under Blair and Coulson under Cameron, has allowed the PM to more efficiently and effectively control the release of information to the public. For instance, a PM is able to carefully vet information and arguments before they’re released to the media, feed stories only to sympathetic media sources, and release information close to media deadlines to prevent the checking or the identification of counter arguments and finally, release ‘bad’ news at times when other, more important events dominate the news agenda.
However, media attention does not always work to the benefit of the PM and it offers many constraints to his or her power. As Macmillan once said, the factor that decides a PM’s power is the ‘events dear boy, events. ’ This was certainly true for Major with the disaster of ‘Black Wednesday,‘ and a weak majority in the Commons, the bad press he gained from these events, some believe, partly explained his defeat.
Similarly, Brown came into power at a very fragile time in British politics, the recession of 2008; therefore, he was unable to ever portray himself in a good light to the media who slated him, throughout his entire premiership. Furthermore, ‘bad’ news stories can leave a PM’s reputation in tatters. For instance, the “cash for Cameron” scandal which significantly weakened the Conservative’s popularity in the polls, lessening the public’s confidence in Cameron as a leader. Moreover, Cameron’s seemingly unpopular position on press regulation and the BSKYB revelation has somewhat reduced Cameron’s public standing.
To conclude, the question of how powerful a PM is, in my opinion, really depends on which PM we’re talking about because I believe that this kind of power is immeasurable on such a generalised basis. However, if I had to comment on our current PM, David Cameron, I would say that I don’t think he wields as much power as former transformative PM’s such as Thatcher and Blair did. This is due to the coalitional nature of his administration which is bound by the coalition agreement that insists on frequent deference over decisions between himself and the deputy PM Nick Clegg.
As well as, the necessity for longer cabinet meetings to ensure compromise and a sense of complacency within the core executive, means Cameron’s model of government certainly leans itself toward a more cabinet style of leadership and this seems fitting as Cameron declared before the last general election that he ‘wanted a more collective style of policy making and decision taking, building a strong team and trusting his colleagues to get on with the job. ’