What Are the Powers and Limitations on the Prime Minister?

“Everyone who doesn’t fall into line will be hit on the head… no wonder some ministers were actually physically sick, before going to meetings with a piece of business likely to be on the receiving end of the most famous handbag in world political history”. These comments have been taken from an exchange between David Howell and Professor Lord Hennessy, the person they were discussing was Lady Margaret Thatcher. The extract illustrates well a popular thesis in British politics, that “we have shifted from a parliamentary system to a presidential one”.

Lady Thatcher had her own agenda, and one that was not shared by most of her party, and she would lose no opportunity to imprint her view firmly, perhaps forcibly – even emotionally upon her audience. Margaret Thatcher provides excellent analysis to those whom seek to set the Prime Minister on a pinnacle of power, above and apart from all other actors; thus the Prime Minister is far more powerful than other actors allow him/her to be.

However history has taught us well that the office of the Prime Minister is like an elastic band , it can be stretched to accommodate an assertive Prime Minister, and even flip back for a less assertive PM; however it can also be stretched to breaking point, and Lady Thatcher was no exception to this. Although there has been a rich historiography throughout the post war period, it was the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher that fueled the debate about Prime Ministerial government.

Since the 1980s academics have sought to establish arguments about the apparent death of Cabinet, the demise of Parliamentary sovereignty, and the increased centralization of government power into the hands of one executive: The Prime Minister. Evidence has been cited to ascertain that British Politics is no longer founded on the basis of Cabinet government, collective responsibility and primus entranous, but on a system of Presidential government.

However I would argue that the Prime Minister is only as powerful as other actors allow him to be. I am not suggesting that there is still a strong case for Cabinet government, and that the Prime Minister is first among equals; there are clear examples with particular reference to the Premierships of Lady Thatcher and Tony Blair that can be cited in order to establish Napleonic government. But other actors do act as a considerable constraint on the Power of the PM.

Cabinet, Parliament, Party even the House of Lords, all have a hand in acting as a check on the power of the Prime Minister’s office. The Prime Minister’s office is what it’s holder chooses to make of it, but it also what it is able to make of it. Throughout the course of this discussion, I will seek to establish that the Prime Minister is only as powerful as other actors allow him to be. The main focus of my discourse will be how Cabinet and Parliament have impacted upon the power of the Prime Minister.

However I will also explore the roles the party system and the House of Lords has played, as-well as how other actors such as Europe, the electorate, the coalition and the judiciary play a role in acting as a check and balance on power. For those that argue the case for Prime Ministerial government, and an increased Presidentialisation of the system it is often the resources at the disposal of the British Prime Minister that is cited as evidence of this.

In a Commons Select Committee inquiry into political and Constitutional reform written evidence submitted by Professor Peter Hennessy about the role and powers of the PM stated several functions of the PM including: hiring and firing of ministers, chairing the cabinet and it’s most important committees, calling meetings of Cabinet and it’s committees, and fixing their agenda, deciding issues where Cabinet or Cabinet committees are unable to agree, and so on.

Most often it is the Powers of Patronage; the ability to be able to select ministers for the Cabinet, and dismiss them at will that scholars use to establish their argument of an all powerful Prime Minister. July 13th 195… saw PM Harold Macmillan dismiss seven cabinet ministers including a Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Lord Chancellor. This set in motion a wholesale government reshuffle which involved 52 people and affected 39 of the 101 ministerial posts. The Stalinist purge has become known as the ‘night of the long knives’: an ultimate display of the PM’s powers over his colleagues?