A constant theme of modern British Politics is whether or not prime ministerial government has taken over from traditional cabinet government. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet exert formal powers but the proportion of power between them will depend on informal relationships and changing variables, such as personalities, issues and circumstances. Occasionally the debate subsides, only to start up again with renewed vigour when a dominant personality like Mrs Thatcher or Tony Blair, occupies number 10.
Therefore it is necessary to look deeply into the question of whether or not the present system of government is 'prime ministerial' rather than predominantly cabinet led. Parliamentary government as we know it has not always been part of the British constitution. The Civil War of the 17th century was a great turning point when the Stewart's idea of the divine right of Kings to govern a country with little reference to the people – was overthrown. This was a great triumph for democracy. Nevertheless, there was still a long way to go. For most of the 17th century, parliament did not meet continuously.
Between 1681 and 1685 it did not meet at all. After the revolution of 1688, the Commons began to meet regularly. As Keith Feiling in A History of England (1959) remarks "it was in parliament rather than in the crown that the state was envisaged as an undying corporation" For Parliament to govern effeciently a small executive body under a party leader became necessary. This body became known as the Cabinet, and the leader as the Prime Minister. The cabinet is a democratic institution that evolved from the Privy Council to become the senior advisory party to the monarchy.
In modern times, however, the cabinet's functions are somewhat different. The cabinet's function is generally focused on planning the business of the Parliament. It also aims to give political leadership to the party in power, to solve administrative disputes, provide oversight and co-ordination in Government policies. Above all it is the place where most important decisions are made. Cabinet government consists of a collective executive where members share in decisions and are held to be collectively responsible.
It is also the peak institution in a classified and centralised government system. The Prime Minister is the head of the cabinet and is more than the first among equals, but not a seperate executive taking all decisions and being held singly accountable for the government, like, for example, an American President. In analysing the actual practice of the cabinet, one can say that it is inadequate for several reasons. The quantity of the government work vastly increased during the 20th century resulting in cabinets that were too large for meaningful discussions to take place.
Ministers have therefore found that they are struggling to master their own sector of work and lack the time and information to make a beneficial contribution to the leading of government. According to political analyst Christopher Foster(1999) the cabinet is little more than an "executive with few or no executives" The Prime Minister's power over cabinet ministers is strengthened by the fact that he/she is the core executive and can effectively 'hire and fire' members, although reshuffling is a more polite political term to use. 'Reshuffling the cabinet' has become an annual occurrence.
Cabinet colleagues have to defend cabinet decisions in the public eye or they have to resign. Having the authority to guide the cabinet is one of the most important and significant responsibilities of a Prime Minister. However, in recent times, responsibilities of the British Prime ministers have increased, detracting his/her focus away from cabinet duties. In the 1970's, Edward Heath's inolvement in the European Economic Community was then followed by involvement in the European union and the Commonwealth Summit. These became responsibilities, and took up an ever-increasing amount of the Prime Minister's time.
European and Trans-Atlantic ministerial involvements became routine duties, and increased in the governments which followed Edward Heath. An example of these responsibilities in the current government is Tony Blair's involvement in the European Union and his regular visits to Washington. While these commitments may be important to British international relations and foreign affairs, perhaps it could be said that they are taking up so much time that they are becoming more important than running the cabinet, especially in Blair's Government.
Concerning foreign relations, Margaret Thatcher, however, had a 'Little Englander', anti European Sentiment. Her Euro Scepticism led to conflict with Europhiles such as Ken Clarke, former cabinet Minister Chris Patten, and Geoffrey Howe. Another example of a 'bust up is when in 1986, Michael Heseltine marched out of the cabinet and resigned on the grounds that Mrs Thatcher did not allow him to make his case in full cabinet for a European-backed rescue of the West Land Helicopter Company.