Prime Minister the Cabinet

There have been criticisms concerning the amount of power that the British Prime Minister (Premier) possesses. Most of these criticisms are regarding the fact that the British system of government seems to be departing from a Cabinet government; whereby collective responsibility prevails. However the pattern, in which recent significant Premiers such as Margret Thatcher and Tony Blair have wielded power and authority, has fuelled suggestions that the so called Cabinet government is veering towards a Prime Ministerial government.

In the British system of government the executive; including the cabinet, cabinet committees, Prime Minister's office, and the cabinet office, are the head of the government and therefore in charge of the functions of the state. On the other hand is Parliament the legislature and the courts and judges (judiciary). However because the Prime Minister is the head of the cabinet; which in turn is positioned at the head of the government, and he/she is also the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons, there have been suggestions that power, could indirectly manifest in the hands of one individual.

This has paved the way for arguments that the Prime Ministers Powers are beyond constraints; therefore making his/her position the most powerful political office in the democratic society. Although the fact still remains that the British system of government is based on collective responsibility, provided by a collective executive, and even a strong force such as Margret Thatcher could not escape this reality when she lost the support of her cabinet and the majority of the parliamentary party; which consequently lead to her resignation, [Jones 1995: 87.

cited in Leech, R. , Coxall, B. , & Lynton, R. , British Politics 2006] This paper will examine the effectiveness of the judiciary, executive and legislature, in regards to constraining the power of the Prime Minister, and whether these constraints actually keep the PM in line, regardless of his/her role as head of the government and leader of the legislature.

In most democratic countries the separation of power means that the legislature, the judiciary and the executive are kept separate from each other and function independently, therefore the judiciary and the legislature have a duty to regulate the executive to ensure stability in how power is being exercised, by the head of the government. However this principle is not quite clear in the British system because the Prime Minister is the head of the executive as well as the head of the majority party in the House of Commons (legislature).

It could be suggested that the reason why the position of the PM as the head of the government is constantly under scrutiny, is as a result of the fact that the British system of government lacks a single written constitution that lays down a significant amount of limitations to the powers the PM possesses; as opposed to the USA, whereby the American Constitution provides checks and balances to avoid a fusion of powers; such as a legislature, having a position in the judiciary as well executive, in order to prevent any part of the government acquiring too much power, Leech, R. , Coxall, B. , & Lynton, R. [2006] p.

167. In recent years significant events regarding the Prime Ministers powers, have caused commentators to refer to the British system of government as a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government. The British Prime Minister is not only the head of the government, but is also the effective head of the majority party in the House of Commons. This means he plays a major role in the outcome of the decisions made by these two government functions. As national leader the Prime ministers responsibilities include setting up his/her own government which he/she will be required to lead and coordinate.

Due to the fact that that PM is the head of the executive he/she has the power to appoint and dismiss his ministers of state, cabinet, whips, and the attorney-general and solicitor-general. This power traditionally belonged to the monarch, however it has now been passed down to the PM, [William, A. UK Government and Politics. 1998, p. 116]. According to Leech, R. , Coxall, B. , & Lynton, R. [2006] p. 184, in Tony Blair's government he notably exercised the power of patronage; as only half of his 1997 cabinet ministers remained in office after the 2001 elections, and a further four cabinet ministers were dismissed before the 2005 elections.

The power of patronage means that the PM could dismiss or reshuffle members of the cabinet that he/she has a disagreement with, [www. historylearning. co. uk]. The PM`s power of patronage is significant because it allows him/her to be able to coerce senior ministers who do not wish to lose their position, into agreeing with policy and important decisions, and if they disagree, they would be expected to resign in order for the government to maintain the perception of a collective government. Leech, R. , Coxall, B. & Lynton, R. [2006], p.

193 suggests that the power of patronage could result in harming what appears to be a government that is strongly based on collective responsibility. An example of a Premier that suffered this fate was Margret Thatcher. The damage to her government was as a result of a split government; after the resignation of her Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine in 1986; then the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Nigel Lawson) in 1989, and finally her Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe in 1990; who before resigning delivered a damaging resignation speech, in order to provoke other credible opponents to challenge Thatcher's government.

After the resignation of such an important minister it was obviously clear that Thatcher's government was divided. Another PM who almost suffered this fate was Tony Blair, when his international secretary Claire Short openly aired her views against his recklessness regarding the war in Iraq; however her resignation was delayed and therefore did not do much harm to Blair's government. With this amount of power it is critical that there are constraints in place to limit the ways the PM uses his/her powers for their personal benefits and gains.

Which is why when appointing members of the cabinet there are a few limitations to a PM`s power of patronage; for example the PM has to consider politicians of a higher calibre who could be potential rivals for the leadership of the party, he also has to have a diverse office in terms of experience and age, which means he/she would have to compromise in order to make way for new talent, Leech, R. , Coxall, B. & Lynton, R. [2006].

There is also the matter of tenure; this allows the cabinet to be able to out-vote the Prime minister, it could be through a vote of confidence whereby the PM would summon the House of Commons and lay out his/her policy and plans for the future of the party; if there is a majority vote of no-confidence, the PM would have to step down from his position, because it means the party in question do not have confidence in his/her leadership, and therefore why should the country be subjected to a leader who cannot even secure the trust of their colleges, Leech, R. , Coxall, B. & Lynton, R. [2006], p. 197.

Another essential power that gives the PM and unfair advantage against the opposition party, is the power to call for an election at any point in time within his/her five year period as Prime Minister. However this could backfire if the PM decides to call an election while he/she has a split government or during the time of national crisis, as the society would be in a negative frame of mind. However the power to call for elections at anytime means the Party in power has an obvious advantage, because the PM can decide to call for an election when he/she feels that the government has a good chance of winning, [BBC News].

Evidently Edward Heath`s call for a general election in 1974, proved otherwise because it lead to his defeat, [Leech, R. , Coxall, B. & Lynton, R. 2006]. However the power to decide on an election date was a bonus for Tony Blair; as he was able to postpone the already set date of (8 of May 2001) elections to June, due to the horror of the foot and mouth disease. Although the matter of circumstance is not as reliable as other fixed constraints, it still plays a major part in limiting the abilities of the government.

This could be through national security (terrorism) and the economy (recession). Some could suggest that the strains of the recession could literally have ruined the chances of Gordon Brown having a second term in office, because the past few years under the labour government, Britain has suffered financial strain as a result of joblessness, and the number of unemployed Brits at the moment stands at 2. 46 million, BBC News, Economy Tracker. Another external constraint is the media.

Once a week (on Wednesdays) the Prime Minister is expected to answer questions in the House of Commons; the questions are regarding the plans and engagements of the PM and the country, however because the media covers the half an hour session, it is important that the PM uses the opportunity to prove to the nation that he/she is in control; by being able to account for his/her actions, [Kingdom, J. , 2003]. The argument surrounding the position of the PM being termed as a Prime Ministerial government has been going on for 40 years and will most probably carry on.

As Kingdom, J. [2003], puts it; the position of PM is what the person in the position makes it, sometimes there are weak characters, and some times you have strong characters such as Margret Thatcher and Tony Blair; who were both notably influential. However when the cabinet feels as if the character of a PM is veering towards a more dominant controlling figure, it has enough power to remove the PM form office, [[Leech, R. , Coxall, B. & Lynton, R. 2006].


1. Williams, A. [1998]. UK Government & Politics. 2nd ed. Jordon Hill: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

2. Kingdom, J. [2003]. Government and Politics in Britain: An Introduction. 3rd ed. 65 Bridge Street, Cambridge: Polity Press.

3. Leech, R. Coxall, B. & Robins, L. [2006]. British Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

4. The Cabinet and British Politics [Online] Available at [Accessed 23 February 2010]

5. The powers of the Prime minister [Online] Available at [Accessed 22 February 2010]

6. BBC News: Economy Tracker [Online] Available at 

7. [Accessed 17 February 2010]