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Compare the view that the most significant constraint upon British Prime Ministers is the power and influence of Cabinet colleagues.

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Introduction

Compare the view that the most significant constraint upon British Prime Ministers is the power and influence of Cabinet colleagues. One of the most important aspects of our democracy is its pluralist nature. The concentration of power into too few hands could always be a dangerous prospect. Central government in Britain consists of a complex web of relationships between various institutions. There is little doubt that the Prime Minister is the single most powerful person in British politics. However her power isn't absolute, and there are a number of constraints upon this power. The Cabinet is arguably the most significant of these constraints. There has long been debate about the exact location of power, and more specifically whether we have a Cabinet government or Prime Ministerial government. Some commentators would argue that the power of the Prime Minister has become Presidential, even Napoleonic. Others would disregard this as a gross simplification of the full picture, and that no single person or institution can create policy independently. Some historical grounding is necessary to make sense of this argument over the relationship between different power bases. During the 18th Century, the Monarch was the head of the executive, and Cabinet Ministers were directly answerable to her. When George I became the first Monarch to stop attending Cabinet meetings, a chairman was needed to head meetings and report to the Monarch. The original title given was the First Lord of the Treasury. ...read more.

Middle

Once the decision has been accepted, ministers who privately disagree are unable to criticise it in public. Some might argue the opposite however, that the principle encourages collective decision-making. The confidentiality of cabinet meetings means that ministers may openly argue issues with which they disagree, knowing that what they say won't leave the room. Foley (1994) was a firm believer that the British premiership has become presidential. He isolated a number of parallels between the role of the American President and the modern British Prime Minister. Firstly, he pointed at 'spatial leadership,' tactics employed by American Presidents to try and distance themselves personally from the post of President. John Major made a good example of this happening in the UK when he attempted to criticise the bureaucracy in government, and give the impression that he was on the same side as the average woman on the street. Similar to this point, Foley noted 'the cult of the outsider,' both politically and socially, within American Presidents. By distancing themselves from the government machinery, a Prime Minister/President can play populist politics while ignoring their colleagues. The British Prime Minister, similar to the American President now takes a very public role, exploiting the establishment of TV as the most prominent medium to address themselves directly to the public. In this way they can form a relationship directly with the public, again bypassing their colleagues. The advancement of mass media has also leapt upon the idea of political personalities. ...read more.

Conclusion

Balancers don't necessarily purposely seek power for themselves, but once they have it tend to focus on maintaining stability and keeping the peace. Innovators such as Thatcher are unlikely to leave their decisions open to much discussion by cabinet. She lead from the front, expecting her party to follow. Balancers such as John Major are less likely to approach cabinet with formal ideas, and rely more on the contribution of their colleagues. Norton accepted that these categories are far from mutually exclusive, and a Prime Minister may fall into two or more of them, and not necessarily remain in the same categories throughout their premiership. Although most commentators would agree that personality style is important, many would point to more influential external factors to explain the differences in Prime Minister's roles. For example, John Major might have been a stronger leader if his party wasn't divided and if the country's economy hadn't plummeted. Few commentators would deny the decline in the power and influence of the cabinet as a grouping. However as department heads, the most important of the Prime Minister's cabinet colleagues probably do provide the most significant constraint upon the Prime Minister. Although possessing considerable influence, it is ultimately the job of individual departments, and not the Prime Minister to formulate policy. This is more out of practicality than anything else. As the case of Margaret Thatcher showed, major rifts within cabinet don't prove popular with the parliamentary party, and it is of an utmost important to maintain a united cabinet. Therefore the power and influence of cabinet colleagues probably do provide the most significant constraint upon British Prime Ministers. ...read more.

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