In order to answer this question we must look at the leading styles of the past Prime Ministers, and evaluate their individual techniques for running the government, and compare them to one another. The first person that we shall look at is Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving post-war Prime Minister who ran her government and lead the country for 11 straight years. Margaret Thatcher, or the Iron lady as she has since been labelled, was a very strong and positive leader, notoriously making decisions with little or no help from her Cabinet and colleagues.
Her style of leadership was very much Prime Ministerial and worked very well for most of her time in power as you can tell for the amount of time that she was kept in, however it was also to be her downfall, and as she became stronger and stronger towards the end, possibly with a sense of invincibility and faith in her own decisions, both the country, and her cabinet grew more and more dis-gruntled with her over-powering forcefulness, and a string of unpopular decisions led to her demise.
1990 brought her the realisation of how people in general viewed her, after bringing each member of her cabinet into her office one by one and asking them individually whether they thought that she could stay in power. Although her reign was ultimately brought to an end because of her strong Prime Ministerial style, which got worse towards the end it must be said, most of her time in power was very successful and should be looked at in more detail to gain a good understanding of how a Prime Ministerial government can work well when married up with a satisfactory amount of cabinet input and discussion.
Thatcher did not use her Ministers and advisors in the traditional way that most of her predecessors had, by having regular cabinet meetings where all legislation and policies are discussed between the whole cabinet, and instead opted for a more direct and quicker approach by selecting a handful of ministers who would be relevant to discuss the topic in hand, making the role of the cabinet very similar to a committee.
This approach worked well as it not only ensured that the Ministers who needed to know about the certain policy, or needed to input any of their personal experience and knowledge could, but it also sped up the policy making process dramatically. When she used this technique for decision making, her cabinet was satisfied that the decisions that were being made were being done so with the input of the relevant ministers, however when she started to take it upon herself to make decisions without consulting them, they began to lose faith in her system and that's when she would have started to feel the power slip away.
The ideological view of the way that a government should be run is similar to how Thatcher ran hers in the early years, the traditional way, where the Prime minister is basically the chief executive of the cabinet of around 20 ministers, and that decisions are made by them all as either a collective, or in smaller groups as mentioned previously, as long as that decision is then finalised by authorisation of the full cabinet.
The advantage of using this method to make policy decision is simple in theory, that the Prime Minister will find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to dominate the other 20 or so in the cabinet. This is quite true, however when the Chief executive is in charge of the hiring and firing of ministers, we find that the wish of the Prime minister of the day can be pushed through parliament with relative ease, as we encountered with some of the latter years of Thatcher, and similarly in the recent Blair premiership.
However as we look back at past leaders, we see quite a considerable change between the styles of Thatcher and her predecessor John Major, who ran the country from 1990-97 in a very different, almost opposite way. When Major came to power in 1990, he took a very different view to the way that government should be run to that of the later years of Thatcher. He opted to restore the traditional style of governing with a good cabinet, lots of meetings and debate with his ministers, and taking time over each policy decision.
For the first term that he was in power, the return to the traditional method seemed like a welcome change from the forceful and dominant manner in which Thatcher had led, however it was his lack of conviction and dominance which was his downfall, and most argue that this was the main factor which led to his election defeat in 1997, however there were also other reasons and collectively his reign of power diminished and was subsequently handed over to Tony Blair with his New Labour Party.
As we come to the end of Tony Blair's premiership, we can see the similarities in the way that he has run the government for the past 10 years, to that of both John Major, and Margaret Thatcher respectively.
At first Blair seemed to collaborate the strengths of both of his predecessors, by keeping a strong cabinet of ministers with regular meetings and debates over policy decisions, however he also showed that he was strong enough to stand by the manifesto that had got him into power in the first place, and with the help of his seemingly overwhelming majority of 179, he was able to push most of his legislative programme through parliament in the first year alone.
At the beginning of Blair's Premiership a lot of evidence can be found to support the theory that a more traditional Cabinet and leading Chief Executive Prime Minister partnership was in place, the two powers working well together and ensuring that important changes that needed to be made, were done so with the utmost efficiency. When he first came to power he needed to make radical changes in the way that Government operated in order to restore faith, and raise public opinion of democracy, which he succeeded to achieve.
After just 2 years in power, Blair had addressed and made positive changes in a number of different areas including the banning of Handguns, minimum wage, health and education issues, the reform of the House of Lords, and many other important transformations which stood him in good stead with the public to retain his position for the next two elections. His strong willed focussed attitude was a refreshing alternative to Major, who when compared to Blair, seems relatively weak, and lacked the strong characteristics and ambition that Blair had.
Through all the changes made in his first term, Blair was able to silence the criticism that he had received from not only his opposition but also members of his own party, however he also realised that by depending so heavily on his cabinet ministers such as John Prescott, Robin Cook, and perhaps the strongest of all Gordon Brown (Chancellor of the Exchequer), he was subsequently making them stronger.
As his predecessor, John Major, had also made his cabinet ministers 'too strong', Blair decided to learn from his mistakes and took it upon himself in his second term to stamp his authority on his Cabinet with the use of his powers as Prime Minister to remove any un-cooperating Ministers who might thwart his plans, and also show any other ministers who might have had the courage to go against party decision, and fail to 'toe party line' that it would be in their best interest to refrain from voicing their personal opinions, unless of course they agreed.
Blair then began to make more and more policy decisions based on discussions with his 'Number 10' advisors rather than the regular cabinet meetings which had since dwindled both in length, and regularity. When Blair came to power he had a mere 8 special advisors, however by the end of his second term, start of his third, that number had tripled to almost 30, with whom he continued to make an increasing number of important policy decisions.
The once traditional Blair, who had run his government with the strong support of his ministerial advisors, had become more like a President, in the fear that his Cabinet would become too strong. With the reduction of cabinet meetings and ministers, also came the reduction in public support, which in turn seriously affected the amount of seats in Labour government. His once substantial majority had dwindled to a much more modest victory in 2005. In answer to the initial question; 'Is it true to say that the UK now features Prime Ministerial rather than Cabinet Government?
the short answer would almost certainly be yes. Tony Blair has proved that his style of leading the country without seeking a great deal of input and debate from his cabinet, especially during the final years, is extremely similar to that of Margaret Thatcher, however if we look at the early years of his premiership and the decisions and policies that were set we find a much more balanced and traditional style, although in my opinion it was never a Cabinet Government.
After establishing that Blair has run his Government in a Prime Ministerial style, and even more prominently in the latter years with his introduction and use of more personal/special advisors, or Kitchen Cabinet as it has been dubbed, the question that presents itself is; what is the problem with a Prime Ministerial Government? The main argument is that the advisors that Blair filled number 10 with are not necessarily members of parliament, meaning they are helping the Prime Minister with decisions that will affect the whole country, when they haven't been elected by the people themselves.
However it can be argued that the ministers who have been elected aren't as experienced or as qualified in the relevant fields as those that the Prime Minister can choose personally. It is also worth noting that the decisions made by the Prime Minister and his 'Kitchen Cabinet' will also have to be passed through Parliament, and should the policies completely lose touch with reality and start becoming absurd, the government will still have a certain amount of control with it's powers of restraint, and it's also worth taking into account that a Prime Minister can still be virtually forced out by his/her Cabinet, as we saw with John Major.
Alderman, K. (2006). Prime Ministers and Cabinets.
Budge, I. (2007). The New British Politics. Essex: Pearson Education LTD.
Kavanagh, D. (2006). Tony Blair as Prime Minister.