The Prime Minister is very much a staple of British politics today and it can be seen in the last thirty years that there has been a power shift in UK politics very much in favour of the Prime Minister. Traditionally, the UK government operated under a theoretical system known as cabinet government which is basically the idea that all members of the cabinet should have an equal say in policy making with the Prime Minister being ‘first among equals’ in the cabinet.
However, in recent times it can be seen that the UK government has moved to a system known as Prime Ministerial government which is when a prime minister uses its powers and influence to dominate all areas of government including the dictation of government policy. It can be seen that the powers of patronage the Prime Minister has, the control and bypass of the cabinet by the PM and the fact that the PM is in appearance the head of the country, all of which suggest a move towards a prime ministerial government in recent years.
However, it can be argued that whilst the PM appears to be all dominant in fact the PM still relies on the support of its cabinet, its party and the strength of its party in parliament or in other words the success of the PM. One way in which in recent years, the UK has moved towards PM government is through the control and bypassing of the cabinet by various Prime Ministers.
In recent years, there has been a bypassing of cabinet government and an increase in the use of bilateral meetings (which is essentially a gathering of the PMs most trusted ministers from the cabinet and deciding what to do on certain policies before the cabinet meeting) which allows the pm to have more power over policy and also takes power usually reserved for the cabinet.
An example of this is Blair’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ of which brown was the only ever present member whom he discussed policy with an example of this being the privatisation of the control of interest rates in the bank of England which was very much Blair’s own personal policy. Another way there has been a move from cabinet government is that the prime minister has become able to push their own policy forward with little or no support from their parties for example Thatcher pushed through the poll tax bill even though the party was more or less united in opposition to the idea.
In addition to this in recent years we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of personal advisors to the PM in comparison to previous years where the PM had barely any personal advisors and the now established PM’s office which consists of advisors to the PM thereby limiting the need for cabinet consultation. These moves clearly show a bypassing and control of the government supporting the idea the UK has moved to a PM government rather than cabinet government. One restraint on the powers of the prime minister is the strength a majority in parliament.
It could be argued that there is a correlation between the power of the prime minister and the parties size of majority in parliament for example Blair initially was a very strong prime minister operating under a strong majority in parliament going undefeated in parliament until after the 2005 election but, after significant lessening of the majority in the next election he wasn’t as strong as he didn’t have as much public support for him to justify himself and his policies to his party thereby lessening his/her power.
This lessens or has a restraint on the Prime Ministers power as it ensures that they are very much under the power of the public opinion and that defines how powerful they are. For example, Brown was very much a weak Prime Minister in the sense of dictating policy as he simply didn’t have enough public support or a large enough majority to make his own personal policy which was shown in the defeat he suffered over the gurka bill in 2008 which once again shows the restraint that public support and parliamentary majority has on a Prime Ministers power.
Which shows the PM not to be an all dominant figure in government and very much accountable to its own party thereby suggesting that we do not operate under a PM government as the PM is still held accountable and therefore any dominance over the government the PM has is in fact sustained by parliament and when the support from parliament wanes it can be seen that the PM is not able to dictate policy for too long. Another way in which it could be seen that we operate under a PM government is appearance of the prime minister as a supposed head of the country.
In recent years there has been an increased media focus on the PM (even leading to puppet parodies which can be seen to represent the national mood at the time) making them the focal point or at least seem to be of British politics, the increased media focus has also led to many voters voting for the prime minister candidate rather than the party they represent which also leads to more power as it shows the PM to be instantly recognisable and important so it commands respect.
An example of the Media focus on the prime minister which made him more powerful as they would be seen as the figure head of the government is Blair coming out of the G8 meeting to address the nation and to drive to downing street to sort it out after 7/7 which made him more powerful as he was seen to care and be able to take action.
Another way the PM appears to be the head of the country is in foreign policy, Prime ministers can be seen to be the head of foreign policy in terms of conflicts diplomacy and such for example, Blair is often seen as the man who made the decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan which gives him the appearance of being the head of the country, but it also shows him to be able to dictate policy at least in that area and this can be seen with a variety of PMs in recent years such as Thatcher being known as the Iron Lady after the Falkland’s war, Cameron’s presiding over the conflict in Libya and the subsequent military operations there and Major over the first gulf war. This showed the PM’s to be supposed heads of the country and gave certainly the appearance of a PM government and substance behind the appearance is perhaps shown by such decisive decision making during the conflict. Another way the PM’s powers are under restraint is by their own party in terms of support (or lack thereof).
A Prime Ministerial government relies on its party for backing and allowance for the PM to dictate policy but they are also a restraint from the party in the sense that a lack of support would stop the PM from being able to do those things and usually ends in a new leadership election, there are numerous examples of this in recent history and Whilst it’s certainly true that recent history has shown there to be at least two very strong Prime ministers namely Thatcher and Blair, both of these were both in some way in debt to their parties in the sense that they needed the party support to be such strong prime ministers for example for Blair to carry out his reforms he needed substantial support from his party, for Thatcher to carry out her new right policy’s she needed substantial support from her party.
This reliance can lead to the Prime Ministers downfall however; as it is very much the case the Party is very much happy for the PM to be powerful as long as they are successful in winning the next election so when this becomes under threat the Prime Minister is usually forced out, Thatcher was forced out after she forced through an extremely un popular poll tax bill for example. In other cases it can be seen because of a lack of a large party support some PM’s never get the chance to be powerful and all PM’s are restricted nearing the end of their Premiership e. g.
Brown never really had the same power Blair had and at the end faced a leadership challenged which though he survived really signalled an end to any chance he had of being a powerful PM, in a similar situation with Major’s premiership It could be seen that his leadership was very much affected due to the spectre of the previous conservative leader (thatcher) and also powerful opponents in the cabinet such as Howard and Portillo. This shows that a Prime Minister really relies on its party for power and influence thereby making a PM government entirely reliant on its party which more or less challenges the whole idea of a PM government. Another way it can be seen that the UK operates under a PM government is the Prime Ministers power of patronage which allows the PM to control policy through the threat or use of his power of dismissal and can use this to dominate Cabinet and on extension it’s party.
The PM chooses all of the ministers and junior ministers and all who sit in cabinet so whether the MPs progress in their political career relies on the favour to the PM thereby ensuring support of the PM from the lower down MPs and if they do not support the PM they are forced to resign for example MP John Hutton was forced to resign after saying Labour under Brown would be a ‘****ing disaster*’ which shows that whilst people may argue that PMs need support from its ministers it can be seen equally or more so that ministers need the support of a PM which shows a move to PM government as it show the PM making the decisions and also controlling its party.
In conclusion, it seems that there has indeed been a move towards PM government in recent years especially considering both Thatcher and Blairs premierships and whilst it may be said that the style of government depends on the personality of the Prime Minister traits of a PM government still remained in the premierships of the likes of Brown and Major so overall its clear to certain extent that there has been a move to a Prime Ministerial government. However it does seem that this is facilitated by the party and the cabinet so one may argue that whilst indeed it is a Prime Ministerial government it is supported and facilitated by the government it is perceived to dominate.
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