Questioning the Prime Ministers governing style is commonplace in today's society. Conventionally the British governmental institution is referred to as a Cabinet government, but many feel that the system is evolving (noticeably under Blair) to a point where the Cabinet has become suspended and centralisation of power a reality. In the 1960s, Conservative MP Humphrey Berkeley claimed that Britain had an almost "unchecked Presidential rule"; and at the dawn of a new century comparisons between Blair and Bush stretch beyond foreign policy to governing system.
To discuss the question, it is necessary to define both systems and examine how the British system has developed in to what it is today. The most prominent example of Presidential administration is the American model therefore I shall be using it as my example for comparison. When questioning the nature of Blair's leadership, there are many features that link his style to that of a President.
Firstly, he has often been criticised for appearing to position himself above the party and for the fact that he chooses to communicate directly with his voters, rather than discussing through Parliament – a feature prominent in Presidential politics in which the leader regularly addresses the nation and the media. Another example of Blair's disregard for Parliamentary procedures can be seen in his appalling voting record. In order for a President to gain their position as head of state; they must first receive direct election from the people.
This differs from the British system, in which the head position culminates only as high as advisor to the Head of State (the monarch), and is acquired not by direct election, but through a party system by which the majority party becomes the government, and the leader becomes the Prime Minister. However, the general electoral system has often been described as little more than a presidential contest, with votes being made on the basis of feelings towards party leaders.
Due to the fact that the Prime Minister has gained his position through being elected as an MP through the success of his party, he is therefore dependent on the support of his party in Parliament. On the contrary, the President is independent of the legislature and therefore not reliant upon the support of Congress. The Presidential system involves a separation of powers, with a separate election of executive and legislative branches, each allocated independent constitutional powers. In a Presidential system such as in America, the President is able to represent the nation as he has been elected by them.
Although officially the Prime Minister is elected only as an M. P. for his constituency, in practice, general elections are becoming increasingly focused on the party leaders, for example in the run up to the 1997 elections part of the Labour campaign focussed around presenting Blair as a likeable, "just like us" man, being photographed in his Newcastle football shirt. This is also confirmed by the media where opinion polls and often voting patterns are primarily centred on public feeling toward the Prime Minister, as opposed to the governing party as a whole.
Like the US President the Prime Minister could therefore claim a personal mandate. It ensures that the Prime Minister is becoming less answerable to parliament and more directly to the people – a process closely resembling that of a presidential model as opposed to a parliamentary one. In paying such close attention to style and image, the Prime Minister or President can be seen as appealing directly to the public over the heads of Congress or Parliament. We have begun to see a lot more of Blair with increased media appearances, such as the recent open questioning session in Newcastle over the war in Iraq.
It is also of interest to note how frequently Blair appears at meetings with other international Heads of States. Blair has given unprecedented importance to the image of government. The value of full public support from all ministers is vital to Blair, and collective responsibility has been fully restored. Extensive use of the Press Office is being made, constantly ensuring that New Labour rate highly in the opinion polls. The relationship between the Prime Minister and his party is also very much stronger than that enjoyed by the President.
It has the ability to act as a constraint on the PM, for example in order to pass legislation, he must first gain the support of his backbenchers and take their views into account, however for a Prime Minister such as Blair, with a comfortable majority, this is not such an issue. Strong party unity is vital to the Prime Minister as it means he will usually have sufficient support to get policies through parliament. Whereas the President's control of the legislature is not so strong, the Prime Minister can use his leadership of the majority party to control parliament.
The British executive is collegial, taking the form of a Cabinet or council of ministers in which the Prime Minister was traditionally just 'first among equals. In choosing the members of his cabinet, the Prime Minister is more limited than his Presidential counterpart in that the Cabinet Ministers should be Members of Parliament. He has no power over the bureaucracy as it is permanent and he does not have the support of a personal department as the President does in the White House Office.
The Prime Minister is able to appoint the members of his Cabinet, one of the few powers of patronage he has. When a President first enters office he appoints approximately 4,000 officials. This is the 'spoils system' that gives the President considerable power to reward, bribe and demand. In this respect, the Prime Ministers power is more limited than the Presidents as he does not have the abundance of positions to reward with. However, he can control his Cabinet through his ability to fire and hire.
Hence all Ministers face the threat of losing their position if their opinions are not aligned with those of the PM, which contradicts the idea of one amongst equals. The Prime Minister also controls many other key appointments including peerages and knighthoods; state offices including the armed forces, church and judiciary; government ministers, from senior ministers to Parliamentary Private Secretaries; ministerial advisory posts; nationalised industries, the NHS and the BBC; and party officers.
The variety of appointments is considerable and allows him to shape the very machine of government. Unlike in the U. S. A. , there is nobody to veto these appointments so the Prime Minister has virtually a free hand in the matter. Blair has increased the weight and use of the instruments of power that support him such as the Policy Unit, The Press Office, The Private Office and the Political Office. Non-Parliament members such as Alistair Campbell have become increasingly close to Blair, and have even become more well known than most politicians.
It can be argued that he is appearing to turn the Cabinet Office into a Prime Ministerial department through the creation of a 'Performance Innovation Unit' and a cabinet enforcer. This is of course undermining the Cabinet. He ensures that all departments are in agreement and follow his line. Blair has downgraded the Cabinet and is increasingly centralising power around his office to an even greater extent than that of Thatcher. He is therefore has a great deal of control in exerting power over every aspect of government.
Another institute which Blair is increasingly using as an instrument of power is the Cabinet Office. This is supposedly a neutral unit serving the Cabinet as a whole, however, some political commentators believe that it is being turned into a department of the Prime Minister, enabling him to create units to achieve new purposes within them. It now plays such an important role in policy making that it is seen to undermine the Cabinet and its committees. Therefore, even without a personal department (as the US president has), Blair is certainly not lacking in support.
In July 1998 Blair merged the Cabinet Office with The Office of Public Service, creating, what has been named as "a Prime Minister's department in all but name". The powers that the Prime Minster possesses are derived from the prerogative powers, originally exercised by the monarch (a method now deemed undemocratic), and fall in to two categories – those performed on behalf of the monarch as Head of State, and those concerning party politics as Head of Government (the chief executive).
Within the office of presidency these two roles are combined. From the formal constitutional roles, it can be seen that, theoretically, there are few similarities and the position of the British Prime Minister is far less dominant and central than that of the US President. However in practice, there are many other factors to consider. Although the monarch formally holds the position of Head of State, the powers of the Crown have all been usurped by the executive in virtually every respect.
The monarch only ever exercises any important prerogative powers with the advice of the head of government. There is one area in which the Prime Minister is in fact constitutionally stronger than the President. Whereas in America executive and legislative powers are permanently separated, in Britain the executive dominates the legislature. This leaves the Prime Minister with far tighter control over Westminster than the President has over Congress.
In conclusion, the Prime Minister may sometimes appear to be distancing himself from Parliament but unlike the President he is constantly answerable and remains accountable to Cabinet. On the other hand, many powers of our Prime Minister are less restrained than those of a President such as patronage, the support of a strong party system and the ability to exercise a large number of prerogative powers. These powers are largely flexible due to the lack of a legal framework defining the office (influenced by the fact Britain has no codified constitution).
The Prime Minister has certainly appeared to become increasingly presidential and we are moving away from Cabinet government and toward Prime Ministerial government; however I disagree that it is conforming to the American model. Blair is continuing a recent trend of particularly dominant Prime Ministers, for example Wilson and Thatcher. By taking full advantage of Labour's huge parliamentary majority and continued popularity, he appears to be pushing the Office to its limits, further enhancing the control of the Prime Minister over policy making.