In recent years there has been an increasing debate over whether the executive, and within that the Prime Minister, dominates the political system due to the increasingly so-called ‘presidential style’ of leadership, as can be seen with the development of TV debates between party leaders, mirrored very much on the US debates. The Prime Minister can be seen to dominate due to ‘spatial leadership’, the use of the media, and the quasi-head of state thesis. A key argument is the supposed diminished use of the cabinet.
Whereas previously they were meant to be a decision making body, they are now seen as being there just to rubber-stamp decisions. The pattern is now less frequent, cabinet meetings are becoming shorter, changing from biweekly and up to 90 minutes at a time to 40 minutes once a week. Blair in particular is famous for having bilateral (or ‘sofa’) meetings between himself and a cabinet member to discuss and decide on policy before reporting back to the rest of the cabinet, where it would be finalised. During the 1960s, the cabinet would have been seen as the most powerful body, as opposed to now where cabinet is seen to have diminished, leaving the Prime Minister to dominate both cabinet and Parliament, and therefore the system in general.
The development of Number 10 can also be seen as an increase in domination as it is giving the Prime Minister, in essence, his own department. Within this department there are non-elected ‘special advisers’ such as, until recently, Andy Coulson for David Cameron. These special advisers often have far more control over the Prime Minister than cabinet. This not only diminishes the influence of cabinet further, but also creates a more presidential and therefore dominating style of leadership for the Prime Minister.
This results in less reliance on the civil service and cabinet to form policy for the Prime Minister, and so adding to his/her power. Many argue that many Prime Minsters now rule like a quasi-Head of State. A good example of this would be the recent trip made by David Cameron to the US where he became the first foreign leader to fly on Air Force One. Similarly, there was an interview with Jack Straw where he twice referred to Blair as ‘head of state’. This has consequences on voters who now increasingly are shown to vote for the leader instead of the party and what they stand for.
For instance, during Blair’s leadership and first term he had much higher approval ratings than Labour as a whole, meaning that the Prime Minister’s powers increase and Parliament is in a sense reliant on them. Lauren Evans There is also the increased use of the media. Blair in particular would present policies as his own instead of allowing individual ministers to cover them. Also, equally cabinet would receive a timetable each week showing the schedule of all announcements over policy being made. This increasing use of the media can also be seen in TV debates between party leaders in 2010.
By presenting the Prime Minister as the face of the government instead of sharing the responsibility, this allows the PM to dominate the political field. All of these theories create one larger one, spatial leadership. This is the theory that by seemingly separating themselves from Parliament, they become a more dominating figure. Media usage and foreign relations are both elements of this. How Prime Ministers have had their own policies which they present as their own such as Blair and Iraq and Northern Ireland, or Cameron and the Big Society scheme shows that they may be separating themselves from Parliament.
This can also be seen from the final speech made by Blair where he stated he ‘never pretended to be great House of Commons man’. This is a way for the Prime Minister to increase their powers without making any constitutional changes. However, there are many ways in which the Prime Minister cannot dominate the political system. Particularly because of how dependent they are on a majority. Blair and Thatcher in their earlier years can both be used as examples of dominating Prime Ministers. This is because they both began with an overwhelming majority in the Commons; Blair coming in on a landslide victory in 1997.
Blair also had a large amount of support from the House of Lords after the reforms were put into place. Because of this, he was able to bring in a number of constitutional reforms and new pieces of legislation. But if we compare this to the current Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, we see that a majority is essential in any Prime Minister having a chance to be dominant and ‘presidential’. Cameron has struggled to change much and pass controversial legislation because of the coalition government (formed because of the lack of majority), as can be seen with the votes against the NHS Bill and Welfare Bill, both 2012.
He lacks in party support because many of his party members, particularly the backbenchers, are unhappy with the coalition. Backbench rebellions can often reinforce Parliament’s sovereignty because they can stop Prime Minister’s over-asserting their powers. There is also a mutual reliance between the Prime Minister and cabinet because the workload is so vast. Running a country as an individual proves difficult and so a delegation of powers is necessary.
Although the Prime Minister may well be acting increasingly as a CEO as opposed to an equal on the board of directors, there is still a dependency on the cabinet which means the PM cannot function without it. If they are felt to be too dominating, such as with Thatcher, and later Blair, their popularity within the party can decrease and so cabinet members will refuse to support the PM and backbenchers will begin to rebel. In the past, PM’s that have gotten too dominant have lost the support of their party and this has led to votes of no confidence. Whether or not a PM acts in a presidential style is dependent on the personality of the individual. For example, there is a major contrast between Blair Lauren Evans and Cameron. When Blair was faced with the problem of Iraq, he did not consult
Parliament before taking action and took advantage of the royal prerogative which enabled him to declare war. Blair bypassing Parliament is seen to have been his greatest downfall and was later the cause of his loss of party support. Cameron on the other hand, when faced with the crisis in Syria, discussed the issue with Parliament and called for a vote of conscience on the matter. When Parliament voted for no military action to be taken by the UK in Syria, Cameron respected Parliament’s wishes. This shows us that it is not the actual role of the Prime Minister that dominates the political system, but more the person in that role.
Prime Ministers can be seen to dominate due to the diminished use of cabinet and the increased use of the media; however, this domination is dependent on the majority they hold. Prior to 2010, many may have argued that the PM dominates the political system, but as a result of the current coalition and the instability caused by it, it can argued that the PM’s powers haven’t increased but have in fact decreased, because now Cameron has to consult Deputy Prime Minister Clegg. The key thing is that although the Prime Minister may dominate headlines, news articles, and the minds of the public, the role of the Prime Minister hasn’t altered that much.
The only thing that has really changed the PM’s powers is the royal prerogatives handed down to them, but this has happened through convention and is something everyone has grown to accept over time. Despite there being few written constraints on the PM’s power due to our un-codified constitution, it remains that their powers are still very much the same. And so, whilst there may be a public domination of the political system, the actual workings of it mean that the Prime Minister is far less dominating than they are or may be portrayed to be. Lauren Evans.