Dimensions of Prime Ministerial Power [Incomplete: for further discussion in class]

Dimensions of Prime Ministerial Power [Incomplete: for further discussion in class]

1. Patronage in Cabinet, Government and Elsewhere.

  • Appoints, promotes and dismisses Cabinet and government ministers.
  • Allocates Cabinet and Government posts
  • Appoints chairpersons and determines composition of cabinet committees
  • Other patronage powers: appoints Permanent secretaries [=senior civil servants], chairmen of commissions, senior judges and bishops of Church of England, some life peers.

1b. Constraints: in relation to choice of Cabinet and Government.

  • Limited overall availability of talent, experience and willingness to serve.
  • Claim of senior colleagues for inclusion possibly in specific posts : Tony Blair could not possibly exclude Gordon Brown; Gordon Brown could not possibly exclude David Miliband or Jack Straw; David Cameron could not possibly exclude William Hague or George Osborne or indeed Nick Clegg or Vince Cable.
  • Desirability of ideological balance: Mrs Thatcher 1979 was initially obliged to choose an ideologically balanced Cabinet although she did gradually dismiss a large proportion of her ideological critics and promote her supporters.
  • Failure to select powerful MPS and/or the dismissal or resignation of unhappy government ministers may create powerful enemies who on the backbenches are unrestricted by the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility. E.g. Mrs Thatcher's eventual downfall was caused partly by crucial opposition from Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine both of whom had resigned from her cabinet.
  • Dismissal of cabinet ministers may create an impression of government in crisis which adversely affects the standing of the Prime Minister.

1c Constraints on other types of appointment

  • Prime ministers may simply rubber stamp appointments suggested by appropriate committees although there is ome evidence that Mrs Thatcher did use her powers of appointment to influence the ideological direction of the senior civil service

2.Authority of the PM within the Cabinet System

  • Powers of appointment as outlined above
  • Sets the overall direction of government and therefore of Cabinet policy.
  • May involve himself /herself especially in policy areas of his/her choosing.
  • Determines number, approximate, length and agenda of Cabinet meetings
  • Prime Minister may partly or totally restrict discussion of important items in Cabinet: e.g. Mrs. Thatcher and refusal to allow Cabinet discussion of ERM issue; Mr Blair and limited Cabinet discussion of Iraq war.
  • The PM sums up the mood of Cabinet meetings; approves Cabinet minutes which are always concise and may not provide a full accurate record of Cabinet discussions.
  • Packing of Cabinet Committees
  • Use of small ministerial groups and bilateral meetings to circumvent cabinet discussion.
  • Doctrine of Collective Cabinet Responsibility means that Cabinet Ministers must support all cabinet decisions even if they disagree with them or resign. This restricts the opportunities for ministers to criticise prime ministerial policies with which they disagree.

2b. Constraints

  • It may not be possible to exclude important items from the Cabinet agenda indefinitely.
  • The PM will need Cabinet approval for controversial measures such as the decision to invade Iraq and demonstration of Cabinet support may actually enhance the PM's authority.

The PM could lose the support of senior colleagues by disregarding their views, ultimately, over a period of years undermining his her own position as occurred in the cases of Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair.

  • Senior Ministers may eventually challenge the PM's preferred position as happened , for example when Howe and Lawson eventually challenged  Mrs. Thatcher's position on the ERM.
  • In any case convention dictates that certain items will appear regularly on the cabinet agenda.

Prime Minister, Party and Parliament

  • Leader of governing party outside Parliament and therefore plays major role in the appointment of party officials and determination of party policy. Extra-parliamentary party traditionally has tended to play a greater policy role in the Labour Party than in other political parties and has sometimes been difficult for the PM to control but Tony Blair tightened his control over the extra =-parliamentary party in several ways.
  • The PM [and the leaders of the opposition parties] increasingly fast track preferred prospective parliamentary candidates smoothing their adoption in safe parliamentary constituencies.
  • Inside Parliament the PM's governing party will usually have an overall Commons majority which means that its legislation will usually be passed with relatively minor amendment.
  • Government party MPs will usually vote along party lines because of their basic agreement with party policy , for career reasons , because of unwillingness to create an impression of disunity, and because PMs may threaten a dissolution which will be followed by a General Election in which MPs may lose their seats....an unrealistic threat however because the PM has much more to lose than individual MPs if a General Election is lost.

3b Constraints

  • The extra-parliamentary Labour Party has sometimes created difficulties for sitting Labour PMS: e.g. radical left wing opposition to the policies of Prime Ministers Wilson, Callaghan and Blair.
  • Opposition leaders and MPs may successfully challenge the PM at PMQT undermining his//her credibility with the electorate who may watch parts of this on TV.
  • There are especially parliamentary difficulties if an overall parliamentary majority is small orb where the party is not united behind the Pm and a significant number of government backbenchers are prepared to vote against the government.
  • A PM may be constrained by the existence of powerful rivals within his /her party especially if the rivals have significant levels of support: the Blair -Brown rivalry is the most significant recent example of such rivalry.


4.Prime Ministers and Public Standing

  • The PM is the most prestigious and publicly visible politician in the country and the mass media are likely to focus most attention on the preferred policies of the PM.
  • Mass Media attention focuses especially on the PM in times of national crisis and when important international negotiations are taking place.
  • The PM employs media professionals in an attempt to ensure favourable mass media coverage.
  • It is argued in general that politicians' images and personalities are increasingly important determinants of voting behaviour  so that a PM who has just won a general election may to some extent claim that s/he has a popular mandate to introduce his/her policies.
  • Furthermore Prime Ministerial power is likely to be higher when he and his party have high opinion poll ratings and vice versa.

4b Constraints

  • High visibility may mean that  the PM is blamed for policy failures which are not necessarily his/her fault.
  • Careful mass media scrutiny via well informed journalists/interviewers such as Jeremy Paxman or Jon Snow may mean that the weaknesses of Prime Ministerial policies are uncovered.
  • Growing exposure of spin and sleaze associated with the PM may mean that an initially trusted PM may lose his/her reputation for trustworthiness.
  • These mass media difficulties may weaken the authority of the PM in his Cabinet, in Parliament and in his/her party


Other sources of Prime Ministerial power and the constraints related to them can be discussed in class.