The relationship between the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
PM and Cabinet
1a) Define the terms ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘individual ministerial responsibility’.
1b) Explain why these concepts are important.
2a) Describe the main powers of the Prime Minister.
2b) Choose any 2 of these powers and explain why they are important.
1a) ‘Collective responsibility’ and ‘individual ministerial responsibility’ are terms applied to members of the Cabinet. This is the British executive, the group of ministers responsible for implementing government policy. ‘Collective responsibility’ is a convention, entailing the fact that all Cabinet ministers share responsibility for any decisions made by the Cabinet. Therefore, even if they are not in personal agreement, as a group of ministers, they have to show unanimous support. For example, with the current war on Iraq, Clare Short, the International Development minister, publicly declared her personal views against the war, but to remain a member of the Cabinet, she had to accept the decision and therefore is responsible along with the rest of the Cabinet for the decision. Conversely, Robin Cook, the former Leader of the Commons, resigned his post as he felt he could not comply with the convention, as his personal views were too strong. Collective responsibility also means that all the members of the Cabinet have a right to be present when decisions are made and have the right to make their views known at the time, but the view of the majority on the committee prevails.
Individual Ministerial Responsibility refers to the fact that ministers are directly responsible to Parliament for their departments and personal behaviour, with each department being answerable through the Permanent Secretary to the Minister. Parliament acts as a scrutineer, holding ministers to account, and they often have to protect themselves in the face of policy failures and mismanagement. This has been a problem in several cases, especially when there are negative consequences resulting from their actions. For example, escapes of information, such as the Jo Moore email following September 11th caused transport secretary Stephen Byers to reconsider his position, as did disasters such as the Rail Track failure. Similarly, allegations of sleaze can force ministers to resign. A notable example of this was Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, after a ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common. However, it is usually events on a bigger scale that have the greatest effect on ministers and compel the case for their resignation. Recent examples have included the educational blips made by Estelle Morris, the former Education Secretary, involving A-level results, Key Stage 3 results and top-up fees, and Neil Hamilton over the “Cash for Questions” and other sleaze allegations. The Exchange Rate Mechanism devaluation and exit prompted then Chancellor Nigel Lawson to quit, and in 1986 Michael Heseltine left the government because of the Westland Helicopters breakdown.
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1b) The issues of ‘Collective Responsibility’ and ‘Individual Ministerial Responsibility’ are equally important as it means that the most influential people who run the country can be held accountable for the things that they do, whether this is within the Cabinet or their own individual departments. The former is significant as it seeks to promote collegiality, solidarity and confidentiality within the formalised Cabinet structure. Similarly, the latter is vital as it ensures ministers are directly responsible to Parliament for their Departments and their personal behaviour.
The main functions of the Cabinet are in determining the policy submitted to Parliament, controlling the national executive in accordance with the policy prescribed by Parliament and the continuous coordination and delimitation of the activities of the several Departments of the State. As well as this, the Cabinet plans the business of Parliament, provides political leadership for the party, in Parliament and in the country, and it arbitrates in cases of disputes between departments. It is within these defined roles that their responsibilities are necessary and important as it ensures that they are held accountable to Parliament and the population.
As the determiners and implementers of public policy, individual ministerial responsibility is particularly important for the ministers who are concerned with it. For example, any ruling on the NHS would leave health minister Alan Milburn responsible, if there were any detrimental effects. However due to collective cabinet responsibility, the whole Government would be liable if there was any damage. A responsible government must display public unity over decisions taken and this therefore makes the concepts very important in this area. In terms of their role in the coordination and delimitation of departmental activities, once again both of the roles are extremely crucial; however the aspect of individual ministerial responsibility is particularly rife. For example, when the Transport department could not solve the problems with Rail Track, Stephen Byers was forced into resignation, as he had to take overall responsibility for his department.
Collective responsibility is essential in planning the business of the Parliament, as this is the arena in which the political views of the population are aired. If the Cabinet decides to leave of the agenda several vital issues, then they will suffer the wrath of the opposition and other scrutineers. Similarly, as their party leaders in Parliament, their own members will look to them to represent them and show a united front, and so they will all have to take a collective responsibility for their actions henceforth. If ministers leak disagreements, such as Clare Short about the ensuing War on Iraq, then the party appears weak to the members and to the wider public, which could prove to be very damaging for the party. Again, individual ministerial responsibility becomes important if we look closely at executive ministers private affairs, as any who make serious breaches of basic human conduct or standards can be dealt with constitutionally, rather than allowing them to get away with whatever they have done.
Overall the concepts of ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘individual ministerial responsibility’ are clearly important in ensuring that there is a responsible government. For this to be true, they must firstly have the confidence of Parliament, which can generally be ascertained by abiding to their promises and ensuring high stands, and secondly must display public unity over decisions taken on public policy. Clearly, through the previously outlines roles played by the Cabinet and indeed everyone on the government payroll, the big two notions are undoubtedly crucial.
2a) The office of Prime Minister only originated due to the inability of several foreign Kings to lead Cabinet meetings. Therefore, mainly for this reason, the role of the Prime Minister is not constitutionally defined. He is the first among equals (primus inter pares), but ultimately is elevated far above the rest. Briefly, the roles of the Prime Minister are heading the executive and consequently government policy, leading his party inside and outside of Parliament and being Britain’s senior representative out of seas. In addition, he is also the countries head appointing officer. To fulfil his job, the Prime Minister has several powers which he can utilise:
Firstly, he has the power of appointment, whereby he appoints all ministers and subsequently promotes, demotes, dismisses. This means that after an election he is able to appoint whoever he likes to fill all the government positions, and decide who does what in Cabinet. He appoints the chairmen of Cabinet committees, which is now increasingly important. This power means that he is able to take an unelected member of the House of Lords, and get them controlling several Government think tanks. This has become increasingly evident with Lord Falconer operating as the head of several Home Office committees, and Lord Simon working with BP in the trade department. Equally, he approves choice of ministers’ parliamentary private secretaries as these are the people who will soon be making their way up the ladder through the party lines. He also has other patronage powers, for example appointing chairmen of commissions, recommending knighthood, peerages and sundry other awards.
A second power that the Prime Minister has is with Cabinet Direction. He can choose to have meetings whenever he wishes, which nowadays is often less than an hour a week. Clearly, due to this it is necessary for him to also determine agenda, and run the meetings, summing up the ‘mood’ of the meeting at the end. Evidently, he is also the key link between the executive and the legislative, and indeed the executive and the outside world. Another interesting power concerned with this is that of having an ‘inner Cabinet’ of intimate advisers who are able to help him directly with decision making. Parliament also gives the Prime Minister power, as he generally commands a majority in the House. He is the spokesman for the government, and weekly Question Time provides a platform upon which he can usually excel, firstly because he has all the answers prepared by relevant departments, and also because the party whips pick on people to ask questions which ‘show-off’ the Prime Minister to the country.
Next, his administration powers are important. He appoints permanent secretaries, vital in some cases to the smooth workings of the departments. Cabinet office acts for the Prime Minister to some extent as he does not actually have his own. At his disposal is a high-powered policy unit at 10 Downing Street, and also traditionally loyalty of civil servants to political masters. His role, therefore, is not constrained by departmental responsibilities: the Chancellor has the treasury, the Foreign Minister has the Foreign Office, but the Prime Minister is relatively independent in his workings, as a lot of his job involves Public Relations. His role within the country gives him an added power. He is the most prestigious and publicly visible politician in the country, and has access to instant media coverage for whatever purpose. Furthermore, he has access to top decision makers in all walks of public life, and the ability to mount high-prestige meetings with foreign leaders, trips abroad etc.
Finally of course, are the prerogative powers, presented to him by the Monarch as the leader of the House of Commons. These powers, among other things entitle him to declare war, sign treaties, cede territory and offer the monarch advice on Parliament’s dissolution, at a time within five years.
2b) The most important powers of the Prime Minister are the Royal Prerogative and the Power of Patronage. Currently, the two main features elevating the importance of the prerogative are the ability to declare war and the dissolution of Parliament. The current Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has exercised these rights in the past two years. Declaring War on Iraq two weeks ago, albeit with a majority of the Commons behind him, showed that his power was incredibly strong and the possibility that he may have gone to War using the prerogative, even with the support of Parliament confirmed this strength. Two years ago, during the Foot and Mouth crisis, Tony Blair was able to move the date of the general election to ensure that the two events did not coincide. Due to Convention, the Prime Minister must call an Election within or up to five years of his term in office. John Major exercised this by going ‘full term’ between 1992 and 1997, one of the only twentieth century Prime Ministers to do so. Margaret Thatcher called her first General Election as Prime Minister in 1983 due to the success of the Falklands Conflict. The other prerogatives that have often proven useful tools to the Prime Minister are the entitlement to sign treaties implemented by Major in 1992 with the Maastricht treaty, however again with the support of Parliament, even though he threatened to go it alone. The right to relinquish land is also a valuable device as it can be often be used in negotiating over issues with other countries.
The power of patronage has also proven useful and important over the years. The fact that he has the power to hire and fire, promote and demote Ministerial Colleagues means that people have respect for him, and his ministers are generally loyal. Blair has not fired any Cabinet members in his seven years so far in office, which is a tribute to the common loyalty that has been shown. Promotions have gone to people like David Blunkett, who moved from the Education office to the Home Office, Jack Straw who became Foreign minister after Home minister, and David Miliband who was promoted to the top of the Education department after only one spell as an MP. Margaret Thatcher on the other hand, was known for firing a lot of Ministers during her time as Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister can also appoint the chairmen of Cabinet committees, it means that he can appoint unelected Lords in the Cabinet or Ministries. This is important as some Lords have effective qualities but cannot fulfil some roles due to them not being in the House of Commons. Lord Falconer, who works as head of some Home Office committees is an unelected Lord, but Blair, who values his opinions and qualities using the power of patronage can put him in this position. Also, of added importance, is the appointment of Royal Commissions, Taskforces, Senior Civil Servants, Senior Judges, Archbishops, Governor of the Bank of England, as well as many other positions. However, the Archbishop of Cantebury, head of the Protestant Church, being chosen by a Catholic Prime Minister, asks some questions about whether this power is suited to the role.
Overall, the Prime Ministers powers are of differing value, however the most important as patronage and the royal prerogative. These give him the greatest scope to make change, however in many situations question his role as a first among equals.