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Prime Ministerial Power in Great Britain Essay

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Updated: Aug 19th, 2021

Introduction

The main theme of this essay concerns the constraints in the British Constitution on Prime Ministerial Power, how dominant the role of Prime Minister is, also the extent of their power. To begin with, this essay will explain what the core executive consists of, what the position of the Prime Minister has come to stand for, in addition, the responsibilities of that particular role. In the second place, this essay will look at the part Prime Ministers have played in the Civil Service and the changes, which have taken place in this area over the decades. The next point will describe and compare the leadership styles of some of the Prime Ministers in the twentieth century to the ex-prime minister Tony Blair.

The next area this essay will cover are the decisions Prime Ministers have made history in shaping policy, their additional powers, also how this has led sometimes to their ultimate downfall. Their unique responsibilities will also be illustrated. The next area of this essay will explain the cabinet support, why this is essential for the Prime Minister, interpersonal relationships within the cabinet, and the reasons why the PM is most popular after an election victory, then, describing observer’s viewpoints of Tony Blair being more presidential and comparing this with past prime ministers. Lastly, the final analysis of the prime minister will be expressed. To conclude, the main themes of the essay will be summarised, summing up briefly the personal opinions of the essay.

In Britain, the core executive consists of different multifaceted offices and establishments, which are at the top of where major decisions take place. This method goes further than the prime minister and Cabinet, including the Prime minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office. In recent times the office of the Prime Minister has come to symbolize, power and prestige as well as ambition. The prime minister is responsible for firstly creating a government, overseeing the civil service and government agencies; secondly, in this regard, the modern prime minister is more influential in economic issues, foreign affairs, and defense. (Peele, 2004:187-189)

Thirdly, the prime minister sets the date for general elections, although the prime minister will always consult colleagues before an election date is established, also, the PM will always make the final decision by royal assent. Being the head of the House of Commons generally means getting support and having the authority to appoint the hundred, or so politicians coming mainly from the House of Lords who at moment’s notice form a government. In addition, the prime minister is responsible for recommendations of honors in the various New Year special honors lists. The PM has a unique role in the area of national security, being the national leader signifies representing the country at global events, such as playing host to heads of state and international conferences, (Peele, 2004:187-189).

Constraints on the power of patronage

  • If the party has been in opposition, then the first Cabinet appointed after a general election victory is usually the shadow cabinet.
  • Some MPs will have such extensive experience or authority that they can hardly be omitted
  • Some MPs have sizeable backbench followings. Omitting them from the cabinet might lead to dissatisfaction on the backbenches, possibly in the form of ‘cabals’ or factions which might eventually lead to a leadership challenge. At the very least, disgruntled MPs might withhold their support in parliamentary votes (‘divisions’) on the government policies and Bills.
  • The cabinet needs to be reasonably ‘balanced’, meaning that it must include ministers from the different ideological sections of the parliamentary party
  • Some MPs are too young and inexperienced to include while others may be approaching the end of their parliamentary careers or they might indicate that they no longer wish to hold ministerial office.
  • Frequent ministerial reshuffles are also likely to reflect poorly on the Prime Minister, suggesting either a sense of panic or raising doubts about their political judgment in appointing ministers who are then rapidly (re)moved

Constraints on dealing with the cabinet

  • Certain items always appear on the Cabinet agenda as a formality (for example, a report on forthcoming parliamentary business and legislation)
  • Some items may be needed to be included due to their urgency
  • A group of ministers might occasionally insist on the inclusion of a particular item on the cabinet’s agenda. Continued refusal to permit this leads ministers to wonder what the PM is afraid of in seeking to avoid discussion of the issue.
  • Although formal votes are not normally taken in cabinet meetings, PMs need to be careful in ‘summing–up’ the overall view of the ministers present. They cannot declare that ‘policy X’ has been agreed upon if the overwhelming majority of other ministers have expressed – and heard each other express – their preference for ‘policy Y’

Constraints on the appointment or chairing of Cabinet committees

  • Membership is usually ‘functional’, meaning that the ministers serving on a Cabinet committee are usually those whose department has input into a proposed policy.
  • Prime Minister’s workload is such that they can only chair a few Cabinet committees and, therefore need to delegate the chairing of the rest to other senior ministerial colleagues. (Wright, 2003: 69) For example, during his second term as Prime Minister, Tony Blair chaired six out of forty-four Cabinet committees, while the home secretary chaired nine, the deputy PM chaired eight and the Chancellor chaired four, as did the Lord Chancellor.

Constraints on calling a general election

  • General elections have to be called at least once every five years.
  • The threat to call a general election in order to quash backbench unrest would merely serve to draw attention to that unrest and suggest that the PM lacked authority over his backbenchers.
  • Waiting for the full five years can leave a PM and Government to last-minute crises or events beyond their control, with insufficient time to put them right,
  • Calling a general election too soon (within four years of the previous one) may arouse suspicions that the PM lacked fears of losing popularity during the coming year. People might ask questions like ‘Does the PM know something we don’t?’ or ‘Has the PM been warned of an imminent economic downturn?’
  • A general election campaign is extremely arduous for a PM, involving constant visits to the length and breadth of the country, public speeches, media interviews, etc. Most MPs however, need only to campaign in their own constituency.
  • A PM stands to lose a great deal if their government is not re-elected – loss of power, loss of home, likely loss of leadership position. By contrast, even if their party is voted out of office in a general election many MPs will be re-elected (Buckley, 2006: 297)

Over the past forty years in the UK, prime ministers had to play an important part in various initiatives such as industrial trade unions and issues in Northern Ireland. PM’s on the other hand might delve into areas that they passionately believe in, which might sometimes risk upsetting other ministers. James Callaghan the PM during the late seventies intervened in educational and health matters, while Margaret Thatcher bought in the poll tax, Tony Blair on his thinking put into operation the millennium dome, had a keen interest in law and order and supported President Bush in the Iraq war. (King, 2006:78-83)

The prime minister has the power to recommend to the monarch the arrangement of disbandment of parliament within a five-year period. This reinforces the PM’s authority against the oppositional parties but not the party, however, this weapon can sometimes backfire, for instance when Edward Heath called an election in 1974 and James Callaghan in failing to call one in 1978 can mean defeat. Final decisions on election dates are generally finalized after consultations with chief whips and the cabinet. Prime Ministers historically have unique responsibilities for the concerns of the citizens of Britain, notably in world wars and recent crises like foot and mouth and fuel crisis.

Prime Ministers importantly must govern in a democratic way, by getting a consensus if they are to do well in office. Crucially as colleagues and cabinet ministers in the party form an opinion of the prime minister’s style of leadership, and the authority in which the PM is able to carry out their role. Concerns over important areas of policy effectively meant the downfall of Thatcher and Callaghan, (Rojek, 2008:187-192).

The support of the party gives the prime minister the right and influence to carry out their duties, relationships within the party are paramount and are two-way. The relationships the PM has between cabinet ministers and close associates do not necessarily have to do with personally as generally they are part of a structural relationship which is linked by the rules of the Whitehall circle, which are made up of institutions of governments, past policy decisions and by outside political and economic matters.

Cabinet ministers and the prime minister have resources available to them; however, to achieve this they have to go through a process of exchange. This clearly has to do with the particular framework, which the prime minister would have achieved on the election result if the PM were unpopular in the polls, and then they become more reliant on others for advice. (King, 2006:78-83) A prime minister has the most authority after an election victory. The PM does not achieve anything in office if they do not have the support of their cabinet ministers.

In addition, the PM is reliant on the cabinet, as the prime minister being in office is based on legitimacy. Again, an illustration of this was during the Thatcher years when in the end, she was removed as her cabinet lost confidence in her leadership and therefore she had lost the cabinet’s backing. After Thatcher John Major’s style of leadership represented working with the cabinet to build a consensus, which was needed at the time. (Barber, 2006:227-235)

Blair being aware of how support is important owed his position in lots of ways to Gordon Brown’s loyalty as Brown decided not to challenge Blair. In return, Blair has given Brown the autonomy and authority to run the government’s economic affairs. Even though Tony Blair’s style is more of a superior figure who makes executive decisions which he feels is best for the country regardless of what the majority of a cabinet might think. Prime Ministers are clearly in a powerful position of authority; however, ministers are also in a strong position as the heads of departments, as these departments play an integral role in central government.

Various observers have described the present Prime Minister leadership as being presidential. If Blair is viewed as more presidential than some of the past Prime Ministers like Major, or Douglas-Home, maybe the contrast is not as significant when compared to leaders in the vein of Lloyd George, Churchill, and Thatcher. Generally, Prime Ministers are in a strong confident position when things are going well, more presidential in periods of war (Wicks, 2006:200).

The final analysis Of the Prime Minister is that they have around them ministers who have needs of looking after what is best for their department and themselves. The quest for self-interest can weaken the combined ambitions of the government and the role of the PM; the task of the prime minister, therefore, is to act as an entrepreneur who gives support and benefits to ministers in return for their support, which is important. Furthermore, the PM is an entrepreneur who not only creates incentives and choices but can also use leadership authority to shape preferences so that cabinet ministers can choose what is best for the party, (Barber, 2006:227-235).

Conclusion

To conclude, we can see that the position of the Prime Minister is about power, responsibility, and influence, such as areas in foreign affairs and global and European council events. Overall, the Civil Service has gone through major changes to make the civil service more accountable, even though the Blair government has carried on with these reforms bought in by the conservatives. Evidence suggests the reduction of the Civil Servants is definitely a cost-cutting measure designed to make the Civil Servants more efficient. Another theme of this essay related to the leadership styles of the Prime Ministers and comparing these.

It can be argued that leadership needs to find a common ground to build a consensus amongst colleagues, otherwise as in the example of ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the prime minister can be easily voted out when the confidence is lost.

The support of the cabinet and everyone working together is very important if the PM is to remain in office, evidence suggests that this will always be the case. Overall, the modern Prime Minister has many resources available to them, also, the relationship the Prime Minister has with the cabinet will always continue to be a two-way one. It follows that the Prime Minister as a political entrepreneur attempts to encourage the cabinet to do what is best for the country. This can at times be very risky, such as the millennium dome, and in past and current world conflicts.

References

Barber Sotirios A., Fleming James E. (2007) Constitutional Interpretation: The Basic Questions. Oxford University Press, USA: 227-235.

Buckley Stephen (2006) The Prime Minister and Cabinet (Politics Study Guides) Edinburgh University Press: 297.

King Anthony. (2007) The British Constitution. Oxford University Press, USA: 78-83.

Peele Gillian. (2004) Governing the UK: British Politics in the 21st Century (Modern Governments) Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell: 187-189.

Rojek Chris. (2008) Brit-Myth: Who Do the British Think They Are? Reaktion Books: 187-192.

Wicks Elizabeth. (2006) The Evolution of a Constitution: Eight Key Moments in British Constitutional History. Hart Publishing: 200.

Wright Anthony. (2003) British Politics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA: 69-70.

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