The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister


 Post-War UK Prime Ministers:  Newsnight


Gordon Brown Where did it all go wrong?

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 The Powers of the Prime Minister

In any assessment of the extent of Prime ministerial power it should be remembered that the definition and analysis of power presents several theoretical difficulties. We might as a first approximation adopt Max Weber's definition of power that it is “the chance of a man or a number of men [sic] to realise their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action” but, continuing with Weber's analysis we should then have to distinguish between power and authority. It would also be important to consider one, two and three dimensional concepts of power and the various theories which have been used to analyse the distribution of power in society. These and other issues surrounding the nature and distribution of power are considered elsewhere in this module but they receive little consideration in the discussion of the powers of the Prime Minister which focuses mainly on the factors which   may or may not enable the Prime Minister to dominate the various institutions at the centre of government .

Prime Ministers might under some circumstances dominate their Cabinet or their Party but be heavily restricted in policy matters by slow economic growth which restricts their spending programmes. They will also need to consider the likely impact of government policy of government policy on, for example, the City and the foreign exchange markets, the IMF[for example as in 1976 when stringent conditions were attached to a major IMF loan to stabilise the sterling exchange rate]  or the EU  or even the trades unions[especially  in the era of corporatist bargaining prior to 1979 but less so subsequently .Given the constraints of economic management some writers have suggested that the PM should be visualised as a climber on a difficult rock face with little freedom of manoeuvre.

Irrespective of the theoretical difficulties involved in the definition of power it is nevertheless clear that Prime Ministerial power is a variable depending upon interrelationships between prime ministerial personality, the perceived effectiveness of prime ministerial policies, the institutional frameworks of government and economic trends and unforeseen circumstances. Thus, a charismatic Prime Minister pursuing policies widely regarded as effective in favourable economic and political circumstances may be able to manipulate the institutional machinery of government so as to exercise "when successful a dominating personal control" as Crossman has expressed it. In the reverse case the PM's freedom of manoeuvre may be restricted forcing him/her into a chairmanship role as implied by the "Primus inter Pares" aphorism. Various intermediate positions are also possible.

Richard Crossman in his version of the theory of Prime Ministerial government emphasised the following major institutional sources of Prime Ministerial power:

  • the power to appoint and dismiss Cabinet and other ministers;
  • the power to allocate particular portfolios to particular ministers so as to influence the direction of policy;
  • the power deriving from the PM's chairmanship of the Cabinet which might enable the PM to control the Cabinet agenda and to summarise discussion to reflect his/her own political views rather than those of the Cabinet as a whole;
  • Collective Cabinet Responsibility then enhances prime ministerial power by restricting ministers' freedom to dissent in public;
  • the power to determine the chairmanship and composition of cabinet committees and to chair the most important committees himself/herself. Importantly once decisions are taken in Cabinet Committee it is argued that they are very unlikely to be overturned in Cabinet Meetings.
  • it has, in any case been argued that major decisions are often taken in bilateral meetings between the PM and relevant individual cabinet ministers and/or in secret ad hoc groups whose existence may be unknown to other cabinet ministers;
  • the PM may exercise considerable influence over the personnel and machinery of the Higher Civil Service;
  • the PM's Press Secretary may present analyses of government policy via the Parliamentary lobby system in terms designed to enhance the PM's own position sometimes possibly at the expense of cabinet colleagues. Similarly the PM may be able to enhance his/her own status through regular appearances in the media, possibly aiming to appear as a world statesperson  with influence on the world political stage;
  • the PM dispenses patronage which may bring considerable influence over those who benefit or who hope to benefit from it.


Tony Benn, who is another supporter of the theory of Prime Ministerial Power, has agreed with the above points and added two more:

  • the power to determine the timing of the General election possibly against the advice of colleagues;
  • the final veto power over the contents of his/her party's General Election Manifesto.

Both of these points were cited by Tony Benn in relation to Labour PM James Callaghan.


Bernard Donoughue, while not accepting the theory of Prime Ministerial government, does broadly accept the above sources of Prime Ministerial power and adds another important source. "The PM," he states, "has inherited however briefly, the impressive charisma of his [sic] mighty office."

Finally it is useful to note that the factors which strengthen the powers of the governing party may also strengthen the PM. Since the UK electoral system has usually generated single party majority government in the post 2nd World  War period and since MPs can still usually be relied upon to vote along party lines, government legislative proposals will usually be enacted with little modification during the parliamentary process which enhances the power of the government but also the power of the Prime minister.

We see above a significant list of factors which are likely to enhance the Power of the PM but also, for a variety of reasons the power of the PM may also be constrained in several respects.

  1. The extreme pressures of the PM's office may force him/her to give detailed attention only to key areas of policy such as the economy or foreign affairs leaving responsibility for other areas of policy to the relevant minister, thus giving rise to a segmented view of prime ministerial power. Clearly departmental ministers backed up by their departmental civil servants may be expected to have a more detailed knowledge of specific policy issues than the PM could possibly have. This is partly true but Donoughue pointed out that both Wilson and Callaghan  were vastly experienced by the time they became PM .Subsequently Prime Ministers Thatcher, Major and Blair each served as PM for several years during which time they may well have accumulated the experience sufficient to intervene as and when they thought necessary although in the case of Mrs. Thatcher this may have been a minor factor in her eventual downfall and a factor in the accusations of " control freakery" sometimes leveled at Mr. Blair.
  2. The PM's choice of cabinet is restricted by the pool of talent available, by the need to ensure representation of different ideological factions and by the recognition that certain key politicians may not reasonably be excluded. Neither can the PM exercise total control of the cabinet agenda. Much has been made of the Attlee administration's initial decision to begin the production of nuclear weapons, Eden's decision to invade the Suez Canal Zone and Wilson's refusal to allow Cabinet discussion of devaluation in the mid 1960s as examples of Prime Ministerial control over the Cabinet agenda. Similarly Mrs. Thatcher was criticised for her manipulation of the Cabinet agenda during the Westland Affair and the decision to allow USA planes stationed in the UK to bomb Libya in 1986 was taken only by a small number of ministers with the cabinet informed only after the event.

However, it may be that the PM may exercise this type of control only if key ministers concerned with a particular decision either accept the PM's view or are disunited over it. For example if both Brown and Callaghan had been united in favour of devaluation Wilson would have had much more difficulty in stifling discussion and Mrs. Thatcher was always keen to ensure the support of key ministers although as problems over European policy intensified, she would find this increasingly difficult.

  1. It has also been argued, for example by Harold Wilson that too much manipulation of Cabinet committees would be counterproductive since it would infringe any existing spirit of collegiality in government. Also, in any case, some ministers must inevitably appear on certain cabinet committees, given their portfolios and in the view of Patrick Gordon Walker the increased use of cabinet committees enhances the effectiveness of the Cabinet as a whole, rather than the power of the PM
  2. Critics of the Prime Ministerial government view argue further that the convention of Collective Cabinet responsibility is not necessarily a mechanism which can be used by the PM to impose his/her views on an unwilling cabinet.    This may perhaps happen on occasions  but other Cabinet decisions may go against the PM who may be obliged to accept them rather than lose face, and hence authority within the Cabinet. Then it is the PM who is restricted by the convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility. Sometimes, of course, Mrs. Thatcher let it be known, often through her Press secretary Bernard Ingham, that she did not support particular Cabinet decisions. In so doing, she was infringing Collective Cabinet Responsibility, undermining collegiality and, once again, contributing to her own ultimate downfall.
  3. Neither may relationships with the mass media always work to the PM's advantage. The mass Media are as likely to blame the PM when things go wrong as to praise him/her when things go right. They may seize on evidence of party dissent rather than reflect faithfully the Prime Minister's line and appearances on the world stage by the PM may increasingly be recognised as little more than PR exercises which actually achieve little and provoke the criticism that the PM should be doing more to improve the domestic situation.
  4. In relation to other possible sources of Prime Ministerial power critics argue that the PM does not have the time to intervene excessively in the higher reaches of the Civil Service; that in "dispensing patronage" s/he merely rubber-stamps suggestions made by others; and that the PM's control over the timing of General Elections and the contents of the party's General Election Manifesto is far from total.

Finally some reconsideration of the nature of power is necessary. Students may remember the distinction between constant sum and variable sum concepts of power. We should not necessarily argue that if the power of the PM increases the power of the Cabinet and/or individual ministers actually decreases for a strong PM may well enhance the powers of the Cabinet and of individual ministers while the power of the PM may also depend upon the existence of strong efficient ministers. This implies that the power of the PM should be analysed in terms of a variable sum concept of power rather than in terms of a constant sum concept of power. This is one of the reasons why political scientists nowadays are more likely to focus on the powers of the Core Executive rather than the relative powers of the Prime minister and the cabinet.


Text Books and Examination Questions

Examiners sometimes ask you to discuss say three possible sources of prime ministerial power and the constraints that may apply in each case. In a subsequent document I shall present the above information in a slightly different format which may help you to relate it to examination questions which ask you to discuss specific powers and constraints.