It would be correct to say that over the years the British Prime Minister has become more of a Presidential figure in Parliament. Recent prime ministers that have been referred to as presidential include Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Harold Wilson. Prime Ministers are supposed to be ‘First Among Equals’ (Primus Inter Pares), however recent Prime Ministerial actions have got people questioning whether or not the Prime Minister has more power and is becoming a Presidential figure.
The idea that the prime minister is now more presidential is drawn from the knowledge of the United States president and how the British Prime Minister compares to him. Firstly, the media turns the Prime Minister into a political celebrity. The actions the Prime Minister takes inside parliament and also much of the PM’s personal life is publicised in newspapers and television. The Prime minister is the spokesperson for the government. Although their access to the media can be used for personal benefit, the media has been more critical of politicians in recent years.
There is evidence of this as the BBC made allegations that the Iraq dossier was ‘sexed up’ during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister (class notes). The U. S President tends to have media coverage also. The wider use of special advisors increases how presidential the Prime Minister appears. The ‘Spatial leadership’ that the Prime Minister now adopts also gives us this impression. Prime Ministers now distance themselves from parties and government and develop their own ideologies. Examples of this include Blairism and Thatcherism (class notes).
In times of distress in the country the people often turn to the Prime Minister in search of a solution. They PM tends to reach out to the people in times of crisis, for example, David Cameron returned home from his holiday early last year to address the issue of the London Riots (class notes). The power of the PM has increased in recent years as the prime minister has now increased control over Cabinet Office, which has turned it into a small scale Prime Minister’s department. The Prime Minister has the capability to dominate his cabinet.
This makes him more like a president as Collective Responsibility is an effective way of ‘gagging’ his ministers. All ministers are expected to support publicly all decisions made in cabinet, or else resign. For example, in 2010 David Cameron was discussing with cabinet about building a Millennium Dome. Before a decision was made, he went outside and told the awaiting media that a dome was being built. Therefore the Prime Minister made the decision alone and cabinet couldn’t disagree (class notes). Another example of this is that Gordon Brown announced his decision to give independence to the Bank of England.
Blair and Brown took this decision alone and Mo Mowlam, one of the most popular ministers in Blair’s cabinet stated, “I read about the bank of England decision in the newspapers” (Politics Review). This clearly shows that the Prime Minister can dominate his cabinet and make decisions despite him being “Primus Inter Pares” (first among equals). As the years go on, Prime Ministers are also having shorter and less frequent cabinet meetings and are holding more bilateral meetings. The amount of cabinet meetings has declined from 100 a year to approximately 40.
Under Margret Thatcher’s parliament, her Cabinet was used less than previous Prime Ministers and annual meetings took place about 35 times. Under Blair, meetings rarely lasted an hour. This is evidence of the Prime Minister becoming more presidential and tackling decisions alone rather than with Cabinet. Thatcher and Blair also tended to have more committees and sub-committees. Blair’s ‘Sofa government’, Thatcher’s ‘Wise men’ and Wilsons ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ are all operating through bi-lateral meetings between the Prime Minister and advisors, so policy was ratified before it reached cabinet.
These are all examples of Prime Ministers taking matters into their own hands and becoming more dominant and presidential. The dominance of the Prime Minister over Parliament is also shown in the ways that he/she chairs important cabinet committees and sets the cabinet agenda. Setting the cabinet agenda allows the Prime Minister to leave anything that may be difficult to come to an agreement on in Cabinet, to the end so that there will eventually be no time to cover it and the Prime Minister has to come to a decision on his/her own. Margaret Thatcher was said to have done this quite frequently.
This shows that the Prime Minister can therefore decide on important affairs without having to consult cabinet. Tony Blair was noted to have used cabinet Committees a lot. The Prime Minister is also considered presidential because of what is seen as a growing ‘West Wing’ in Downing Street. This is due to the increase in Political Advisors in the PM’s office. The advisors help the Prime Minister make decisions even though they are unelected themselves. This means that they effectively influence his decisions and help him bypass cabinet, for example Blair gave his advisors power of Civil Servants.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister can give considerable control to his cabinet members, which isn’t evident in American politics. For example, during Blair’s reign as PM, the Labour party was said to have a ‘Duel Monarchy’ due to how much power was given to Gordon Brown. Other ministers can constrain the Prime Ministers power and effect his decisions, which doesn’t happen with the U. S president. The Prime Ministers personality is an issue in how much power they have over Cabinet. They have powers over office but some may be more proficient than others in the exercise of those powers.
Some Prime Ministers have been good in government management and other haven’t. Some adopted an autorical approach and some others focus on policy reflections. The amount of authority a PM had depends on how assertive a personality he/sh has. For example, John Major was often ridiculed for his inability to make decisions and was seen as a pushover (class notes). The PM’s popularity with the public also dictates how much power they have. At the moment, David Cameron is restricted from acting presidentially as a result of the constraints of a coalition government.
The coalition government may weaken the powers of Cameron as many compromises need to be made to keep the government stable. For example, Cameron had agreed to a referendum on the electoral system. He had agreed to introduce fixed term elections. Liberal democrats hold key cabinet positions. Unlike the president, the PM may face resistance in cabinet as particular cabinet members may not go along with a particular proposal. For example, Thatcher’s parliament lost a bill as the majority of cabinet voted against it.
The PM cannot completely ignore his cabinet. Unlike the U. S. A, the cabinet is Britain is elected. The cabinet can overthrow the Prime Minister is he is disliked. This cannot happen in U. S government. In conclusion, the Prime Minister, in many ways over the years has increased his/her power to such an extent as to appear presidential. However, there are many constraints on PM power to conflict with this view. Whether or not the Prime Minister remains in high powers depends on power, personality and circumstance.