How powerful is the Prime Minister?

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Claudia Clifton

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.

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.

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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 ...

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