The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the head of government and so exercises many of the executive functions nominally vested in the Sovereign, who is head of state. According to custom, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, which he or she heads, are accountable for their actions to Parliament, of which they are members by modern convention. Within the current government, David Cameron has clearly continued the trend of exploiting his office in order to focus the media on him as an individual. This certainly gives the impression of more individual dominance rather than collective decision making as has been the case for other recent PMs. But when we consider such developments in terms of actual increases in power for the PM, it may be a matter of style rather than substance. Cabinet has certainly declined as a full forum for decision making. e.g. BoE independence was made by the Blair/Brown axis not full cabinet.
Under Cameron, George Osborne appears closer to the PM’s ear than most. Therefore PM power has increased in this sense. Furthermore, recent PMs have increasingly sought the advice of special advisers. Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, became known as ‘the real Deputy Prime Minister’. These tactics certainly afford the PM more power. Another recent phenomenon is one whereby the electorate focus on the head of the government rather than the government as a collective, suggesting that we have a single executive representing entire governments. This might have something to do with the way politics is now reported on TV where the PM gets far more coverage than the rest of their Cabinet and this suggests an increase in PM power. The personal style of governance of recent PMs also extends to their habit of taking personal control over departmental affairs; Under Blair an example could be Northern Ireland. Whilst under Brown, there is strong evidence to suggest that he often overruled members of Cabinet.
And the current PM seems to change party and government policy on the hoof, even forcing his health secretary into a U-turn on scrapping NHS Direct. All this supports the idea of an increase in PM power On the other hand, it is important to note that the office of Prime Minister is too much for one person and it is unrealistic to suspect that they will be able to control the entire apparatus of government. They lack time, institutional support, interest, or even knowledge – Blair reputedly admitted that he didn’t understand economics, for instance. Thus Cabinet still matters and PM power has not necessarily increased. Essentially, recent history suggests a PM would be unwise to entirely disregard their Cabinet. It was the lack of support from her senior colleagues that finally broke Thatcher. Cameron especially, was often accused of running the Conservative Party in a very presidential manner but within the Con-Lib Coalition he cannot enjoy that luxury given that he must seek the agreement of the Lib Dems. Therefore PM power has not witnessed an increase.
It is also important to bear in mind that the theory of presidentialism can be a double edged sword, and lead to a decline in power. Blair’s conscious attempt to create a singular focus on his personal leadership left him exposed when things went wrong after the Iraq invasion. Therefore PM power hasn’t increased. Another argument could be that with larger levels of influence being shown by the EU, seem to mark a distinct fall in international power exorcized by the UK PM. For instance the recent case of Abu Hamzer’s deportation has been interfered with heavily by the EU and has not been helped by Teresa May’s blunder which gave him a much needed hand up in his case. The PM being overruled by international bodies would suggest a decline in his power. All things considered, you could compare the PM’s power to an elastic band, which stretches depending on personality and circumstances. Mrs Thatcher was blessed with large majorities, and was credited with improving economic performance.
Allied to this, she was a woman with charisma. Blair echoed this and both are therefore seen as powerful PMs. Their successors were less fortunate. The band snapped back during Brown’s time in office. His personality did him no favours, he lacked a mandate, and the economic crisis shattered his credibility as PM. In the end, there are a clear number of arguments and theories for and against the question posed, as to whether the Prime Minister has become more powerful in recent years. There are arguments that Prime Minister’s powers have increased at the expense of the Cabinet itself, whilst others suggest they have increased under the present political climate. On the other hand, it is suggested the power is decreasing as less people show any interest or participation in politics, and that the Prime Minister is unable to influence any members of the public or the government, as he can also be outvoted by his own Cabinet if they strongly disagree on a piece of policy on a collective basis.
Naturally, personality and style make a significant difference to the way in which a Prime Minister conducts their own office. Margaret Thatcher led her government from the front, whilst the likes of John Major who succeeded her in 1990 were more reserved. Of course, for Prime Ministers to have the power they seek, they really need to have both good luck and judgement in equal measure. In conclusion, it is largely felt that the Prime Minister has become more powerful within the last two to three decades, and that all those who have been in office have continually developed upon the principles laid out. I personally agree also, feeling that the significance and power of the media over the general public has played a vital role in increasing power and significance of the Prime Minister, and politics in general, in the lives of the general public, as well as within the government and policy and decision making bodies themselves.
Courtney from Study Moose
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