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Politics Essay – Prime Minister Too Powerful – Low 2:1

Has the office of Prime Minister become too powerful?

This essay concerns itself with the question of the Prime Minister’s powers and whether these have become too great over recent years so that the Cabinet has turned into a mere rubber-stamp.  The roles, duties and powers of both the Prime Minister (PM) and the Cabinet will be discussed before looking at specific examples.

The PM in the UK is referred to as being primus inter pares, meaning ‘first among equals’[1].  He[2] is both the leader of the government and the leader of his political party.  ‘The Prime Minister is the head of the UK Government and is ultimately responsible for the policy and decisions of Government.  As head of the UK Government the Prime Minister also oversees the operation of the civil service and Government agencies, appoints members of the cabinet, and is the principal Government figure in the House of Commons[3].

The PM gains his power from several areas.  The most important of these is due to the way in which the electoral system operates in Britain, the PM usually commands a commons majority.  The UK’s structure is unique among parliamentary governments in that usually the parliament is formed by proportional representation rarely giving any one party a majority[4].  This facilitates the passing through of legislation provided that the party members in parliament either agree with him or are prepared to tow the ‘party line’, most obviously seen in the decision to go to war in Iraq[5].

Secondly, the PM sets the agenda for the Cabinet and also communicates the decisions made in Cabinet meetings to the wider world via the media[6].  Therefore, ministers are heavily reliant upon him to pass on their views.

Thirdly is his ability to appoint Cabinet ministers and his own special advisors[7].  There are no confirmation hearings as in the US presidential system[8].  Cabinet ministers are almost always chosen from parliament; however, there have been a few exceptions to this.  Notably, in October 2008 Gordon Brown gave Peter Mandelson a peerage, in order for him to be given his new role of Chief Whip[9].  In 2006 the PM was quizzed over allegations that he had given a peerage to Lord Sainsbury, the billionaire retailer, in return for donations to the Labour Party in the ‘cash-for-honours’ scandal.  Lord Sainsbury, a strong ally of Tony Blair, was subsequently given the job of Science Minister[10].

As mentioned previously, not only is the PM the head of the government, he is also the leader of his political party.  Just as in the Cabinet, he has the authority to control party appointments[11].  Government posts and party appointments are supposed to be kept separate, however, under New Labour there has been a blurring of the lines.  This was particularly true in the case of Alistair Campbell, who worked as Tony Blair’s PR advisor both before and after their successful electoral campaign in 2001[12].

The PM is also the head of the civil service.  This gives him great control over the bureaucratic machinery of government[13].  Although the Senior Appointments Select Committee (SASC) advises the Head of Home Civil Service on suitable candidates for senior positions, the PM does have the final say in approving these posts[14].  The civil service has taken over much of the day-to-day decision-making which used to be the prerogative of the Cabinet, as was predicted by Walter Bagehot in 1867.  This shift in responsibilities, coupled with the PM’s ability to hire (and fire) senior civil servants means that loyalty has become the ‘supreme virtue’ in not just the ruling political party but now also in the civil service[15].

In 1963 Richard Crossman spoke of how power had shifted from the Cabinet to the Prime Minister and the party managers.  During the two World Wars, power in the UK became more centralised but this power was not then returned to the Cabinet once they were finished.  These powers include the ability to declare and carry out wars on other states, foreign policy and even trade agreements[16].

A very potent tool the PM has at his disposal is direct access to the media.  The mass media can reach millions of people simultaneously and has the ability to alter the psychology of a nation.  According to Jones in 2005, “Media are our primary point of access to politics – the space in which politics now chiefly happens for most people… Such encounters do much more than provide ‘information’ about politics.  They constitute our mental maps of the political world outside our direct experience.”[17]

The role of the Cabinet has changed significantly since the 1950s.  The Cabinet machinery used to consist only of the Cabinet itself; however, due to the huge quantity of work to get through, Cabinet Committees and their administrative arm, the Cabinet Office, were created to ease the burden on ministers.  However, what has actually happened is that Cabinet Committees have become so important that ministers want to make sure they are represented at several of these meetings, so in actual fact ministers now have more paperwork than they did previously.  The historical weekly Cabinet meetings still go ahead but usually they just go over decisions that have already been made at the various Committee meetings instead of discussing the major issues of the day[18].  This is particularly significant when considering the quantity of time this takes up.  As ministers are also MPs they are being kept away from the House of Commons, where they should be, in Gladstone’s words, ‘holding the government to account’ thus allowing the Government to ‘get away with murder’.  MPs are also kept away from the Chamber due to the huge amount of correspondence received from members of the public, who write to their MPs instead of their local councillors, as cited in Bernard Weatherill’s essay entitled Law of Unexpected Consequences[19].

Perhaps the famous example of the Prime Minister becoming too powerful can be seen in the UK’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.  Members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet were scared to voice objections to the war in case their jobs were axed[20].  The decision of the House of Commons to vote largely in favour of the war rested on the so-called ‘sexed up’ dossier overseen by Alistair Campbell, Communications Chief, which said that Iraq had the power to deploy Weapons of Mass Destruction within 45 minutes[21].  ‘Legal justification for invasion would be needed.  Subject to Law Officers advice, none currently exists’[22].  The Cabinet Office Paper of 21 July 2002, informs us ‘The paper reiterates that Prime Minister Blair had already agreed to back military action to eliminate Saddam Hussein at the April summit in Crawford, Texas’[23].  Blair manipulated his own Cabinet, the House of Commons and the general public like a fox.  Closely related to this in 2006, Blair told the Editor of The Sun of his decision to send 4,000 troops to Afghanistan before even telling the leader of the opposition.  Mr Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, first read about it in the newspaper[24].

Tony Blair did not call Cabinet meetings about all issues but instead merely consulted a small trusted group or inner circle.  The PM gave special powers to Alistair Campbell, often dubbed ‘the real Deputy Prime Minister’ and Jonathan Powell to give orders to civil servants in 2001.  MPs were worried about this and released a report to this effect in June 2001[25].  One could ask: where was the Cabinet Co-ordinator?

The European Council is made up of heads of state and its role is to react to major current issues as well as steering the European Union’s (EU) general direction.  The European Commission, commonly regarded as the most powerful institution within the EU, consists of one commissioner per state appointed in the UK’s case by the PM.  These Commissioners have sole power to propose new laws and they also check that those laws have been implemented.  These appointments do have to be approved by the European Parliament (EP), whose members are elected directly by the citizens of the member states.  However, if the person elected to the EP is from the same party as the PM, this is further control for the Premier.  While European Commissioners have to sign a declaration that they will serve the interests of the EU as a whole above their own country’s welfare, it is not hard to see how the PM could use his influence within the structure of the EU.  Especially considering his not having to consult his Cabinet ministers back home on matters of great national importance[26].

The trend in parliamentary government towards ‘presidentialization’ can be summed up as ‘the process by which prime ministers in parliamentary systems have… strengthened their position in relation to their Cabinet and government’[27].  Whilst ‘presidentialism’ can be described as ‘personalized leadership that is disengaged from parties or other government bodies, in the manner of an executive president’[28].   Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher’s leadership styles were both considered to be presidential.  They both distanced themselves from their parties, they both made direct appeals to the public hoping to win them over by their personalities and charisma, and they distanced themselves from the machinery of government by appointing their own special advisors[29].

The Second Chamber, or the House of Lords, despite not being very popular at present, does act as a check on the House of Commons, and therefore on the PM himself.  The Lords spend most of their time scrutinising legislation.  As most of the Lords are hereditary peers, and do not hold their posts due to belonging to a particular party, are able to remain impartial as opposed to being swayed by party loyalties.  Also, the hereditary peers usually serve for life, meaning that they often have considerably more knowledge than members of the House of Commons, and can therefore provide valuable insight into proposed legislation[30].

The government itself provides checks and balances on the PM.  Backbench MPs can rebel and Cabinet members can resign if they disagree strongly with the PM[31].  As was the case when Robin Cook resigned over the Iraq War in March 2003.  However, some may choose to tow the line in order to keep jobs or because they have designs on becoming PM themselves[32].

Particularly since the 1960s following a rise in protest politics, there has been a huge rise in interest and pressure groups representing both specific sectors of society and industry such as the General Medical Council, but also groups pushing forward certain ideals and values, such as animal rights or disability groups.  These groups can put pressure on the government in two main ways.  Firstly, industrial groups and trade unions in particular can agree to go on strike until their views are heard or their demands are met, e.g. for salary increases.  These industrial groups are called ‘Insiders’ as they have direct access to the government.  Whereas interest groups such as animal rights organisations, are called ‘Outsiders’ and prefer to make their voices heard via the media and/or by civil disobedience and are able to maintain their independence without parliamentary interference[33].

Above all, the PM wants to remain leader of their party so in order to keep the party happy, the PM needs to maintain popularity.  If the Cabinet truly feels their views are being ignored on a majority of issues or they were not allowed to voice an opinion they will elect a new leader, as happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990[34].

Having mentioned previously ways in which the PM can exert influence over the EU, it is worth noting that EU legislation actually supersedes laws made by member states in many areas.  This serves to water down not just the PM’s powers but the UK’s as a whole[35].

In conclusion, during the two World Wars the Prime Minister was given more powers.  However, since that time, it is not the position itself which has become too powerful but rather the leaders have simply become more adept at using the powers invested in them.  Andrew Heywood, argues that ‘the post is what its holder chooses to make of it or, more accurately, is able to make of it’[36].  The PM’s ability to influence mass media has enabled him to sway public opinion.  Even institutions such as the BBC, which before New Labour came to power was respected worldwide for its impartial reporting, has since come under Labour control.  In 2004, both the Chairman then the Director-General, Greg Dyke, were forced to resign following government criticism over their coverage on the war in Iraq[37].  Hence, it would be fair to say that not only has the prime ministerial position become presidential it is essentially moving towards becoming dictatorial.

 

Bibliography

BBC News (1 February 2004) ‘Dyke ‘forced out’ by BBC governors’, BBC News. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3448943.stm [accessed on 09/12/08]

Blunkett, D. The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit. Bloomsbury, London, 2006

Budge, I. et al. The New British Politics (3rd edn.) Pearson Longman, Harlow, 2004

Civil Service. ‘Civil Service Management Code – 5. The Senior Civil Service’, Civil Service. Available at http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/iam/codes/csmc/online_report/5.asp [accessed 02/12/08]

Conyers, J. George W Bush versus the US Constitution, Academy Chicago, Chicago, 2006

Downing Street Memos. (8 March 2002) ‘Memorandum from the Office of Overseas and Defense Secretariat to Personal Secret UK Eyes Only’, Downing Street Memos p.1. Available at http://downingstreetmemo.com/docs/iraqoptions.pdf [accessed 13/11/2008]

Glover, J. (6 February 2006) ‘Queen’s powers should be removed, says Cameron’, The Guardian. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/feb/06/uk.conservatives [accessed 09/12/08]

Hague, R. & Harrop, M. Comparative Government and Politics (7th edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

The Independent. (3 October 2008) ‘Mandelson in shock return to Government’, The Independent. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/mandelson-in-shock-return-to-government-949979.html [accessed 10/11/2008]

Jacobs, B. (14 July 2006) ‘Ministers quizzed by police in cash-for-honours probe’, Edinburgh Evening News. Available at http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/cronyisminpolitics/Ministers-quizzed-by-police-in.2792211.jp [accessed 19/11/2008]

Jones, G. (19 June 2001) ‘Campbell and Powell too powerful, say MPs’, The Telegraph. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1326174/Campbell-and-Powell-too-powerful-say-MPs.html [accessed 09/12/08]

McCormick, J. Understanding the European Union: A Concise Introduction (4th edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2008

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Moran, M. Politics and Governance in the UK, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2005

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[1] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[2] For the purposes of this essay the Prime Minister will be referred to as he.

[3] Number10.gov.uk. ‘Role of the Prime Minister’, Number10.gov.uk. Available at http://www.number10.gov.uk/meet-the-pm/role-of-the-pm [accessed 09/12/08]

[4] Hague, R. & Harrop, M. Comparative Government and Politics (7th edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[5] Blunkett, D. The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2006

[6] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Independent. (3 October 2008) ‘Mandelson in shock return to Government’, The Independent. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/mandelson-in-shock-return-to-government-949979.html [accessed 10/11/2008]

[10] Jacobs, B. (14 July 2006) ‘Ministers quizzed by police in cash-for-honours probe’, Edinburgh Evening News. Available at http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/cronyisminpolitics/Ministers-quizzed-by-police-in.2792211.jp [accessed 19/11/2008]

[11] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[12] Moran, M. Politics and Governance in the UK, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2005

[13] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[14] Civil Service. ‘Civil Service Management Code – 5. The Senior Civil Service’, Civil Service. Available at http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/iam/codes/csmc/online_report/5.asp [accessed 02/12/08]

[15] Sutherland, K. et al. The Rape of the Constitution? Imprint Academic, Thoverton & Bowling Green, 2000

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hague, R. & Harrop, M. Comparative Government and Politics (7th edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[18] Moran, M. Politics and Governance in the UK, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2005

[19] Sutherland, K. et al. The Rape of the Constitution? Imprint Academic, Thoverton & Bowling Green, 2000, p.17

[20] Blunkett, D. The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2006

[21] MacAskill, E. & Norton-Taylor, R. (27 September 2003) ‘10 ways to sex up a dossier’, The Guardian.  Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/sep/27/uk.davidkelly1 [accessed 09/12/08]

[22] Downing Street Memos. (8 March 2002) ‘Memorandum from the Office of Overseas and Defense Secretariat to Personal Secret UK Eyes Only’, Downing Street Memos p.1. Available at http://downingstreetmemo.com/docs/iraqoptions.pdf [accessed 13/11/2008]

[23] Conyers, J. George W Bush versus the US Constitution, Academy Chicago, Chicago, 2006, p.19

[24] Glover, J. (6 February 2006) ‘Queen’s powers should be removed, says Cameron’, The Guardian. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/feb/06/uk.conservatives [accessed 09/12/08]

[25] Jones, G. (19 June 2001) ‘Campbell and Powell too powerful, say MPs’, The Telegraph. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1326174/Campbell-and-Powell-too-powerful-say-MPs.html [accessed 09/12/08]

[26] McCormick, J. Understanding the European Union: A Concise Introduction (4th edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2008

[27] Moran, M. Politics and Governance in the UK, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2005, p.341

[28] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007, p.369

[29] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[30] Moran, M. Politics and Governance in the UK, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2005

[31] Budge, I. et al. The New British Politics (3rd edn.) Pearson Longman, Harlow, 2004

[32] Blunkett, D. The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2006

[33] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007

[34] Moran, M. Politics and Governance in the UK, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2005

[35] McCormick, J. Understanding the European Union: A Concise Introduction (4th edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2008

[36] Heywood, A. Politics (3rd edn.) Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke & New York, 2007, p. 367

[37] BBC News (1 February 2004) ‘Dyke ‘forced out’ by BBC governors’, BBC News. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3448943.stm [accessed on 09/12/08]