Have UK Prime Ministers become more Presidential in recent years? In recent times many commentators have pointed out that the UK’s Prime Ministers are increasingly acting like Presidents- of course the UK Prime Minister cannot actually become a President as the system would not allow it. Below I shall be analysing and explaining the factors that highlight the growth of presidentialism in the UK, as well as the points which suggest that the UK’s Prime Minister is still a Prime Minister.
In recent years there has been an increase in the growth of spatial leadership. The tendency of Prime Ministers to distance themselves from their party and government has increased, developing a personal ideological stance. Prime Ministers such as Blair and Thatcher are key examples. Both Prime Ministers have developed their own stances: ‘Blairism’ and ‘Thatcherism’. Blair, for example, had really bad attendance at Parliament and his Cabinet Ministers have been quoted as saying that: Cabinet meeting sometimes lasted only fifteen minutes.
This shows that Blair had a tendency to act like a president. It can be said that Gordon Brown is distant from his Labour party to some extent, but not as extreme as Blair. Brown has good attendance at Parliament and regular Cabinet meetings do take place. On the other hand, one could argue that it is impossible for the UK Prime Minister to become a President, even thought he may act like one. The UK has a system of a Parliamentary Government rather than a Presidential system.
The UK system includes a Cabinet and Parliament, to which the Prime Minister is accountable to, making it impossible for today’s Prime Minister to have a personal department like the USA President does. Although the UK has a Head of State, the Queen, most of her powers now lie with the Prime Minister- this proves that the UK Prime Minister is acting like a President- he is the head of government, but also carrying out the duties of the Head of State- like a President would.
Today’s Prime Minister has the power to appoint members of government, dissolve and recall Parliament and other powers of patronage. These sorts of powers would generally be associated with a President, not a Prime Minister. In the USA, the President and the houses are elected separately, however in the UK, the Prime Minister is elected, primarily, as an MP- it is the leader of the winning party who gets the role of Prime Minister.
However, in recent years, election campaigns have become really personalised- focussing more on the party leader’s personality, strengths and weaknesses rather than the party’s policies, promises and ideas as a whole. The lead up to the next general election demonstrates this: the party leaders of the three major parties have become the ‘face’ of their party’s election campaign. The media concentrates more on the party leader rather than the party as a whole- just like in USA.
For the first time in British history, there is going to be live debates between the three leaders-again just like the run up to the American general elections. These points highlight that the UK is beginning to adopt some American, presidential traditions, it can be said that this is a strong sign that presidentialism is growing in the UK. Although the UK Prime Minister is elected separately through Parliamentary elections, unlike the USA President, there is a trend for Prime Ministers to claim popular authority on the basis of electoral victory.
Prime Ministers have therefore become the ideological consciences of their party and government. Examples are Thatcher and Blair. These two Prime Minister’s literally took complete control. The Cabinet and Parliament merely became subordinate bodies during their time of rule. Blair’s decision to enter the Iraq War, without really consulting his Cabinet or Parliament and Thatcher’s role in the Falkland’s war, are examples of how recent Prime Ministers have set their own personal mandates and taken complete control of proceedings.
In recent times, the wider use of special, hand picked advisors and spin doctors have strengthened the cause of growing presidentialism in the UK. Blair relied heavily on his advisors and spin doctors- who were loyal to him rather the party. Brown is just about doing the same. If the British Prime Ministers are not going to use their Cabinets and treat them like a ‘sounding body’- they might as well be called Presidents. In theory, the UK Prime Minister does not have a personal department, whilst the USA President does.
However, in recent times the Cabinet Office has strengthened. The size and administrative resources available have grown, hence turning the Cabinet Office into a personal department for the Prime Minister’s use. This is another factor that supports the thesis of British Prime Ministers increasingly becoming more presidential. Commentators such as Foley have suggested that UK Prime Ministers are increasingly beginning to resemble presidents, such as Wilson, Thatcher and Blair.
To a large extent this view overlaps with the prime-ministerial government model, but both views do emphasize the growing dominance of British Prime Ministers over their Cabinets. Prime Ministers are acting like presidents, but it is technically impossible for them to become one, so this maybe the reason as to why there is no alarm. In conclusion, one would tend to agree with the statement that British Prime Ministers have become more presidential, but one could also argue that some Prime Ministers, such as Thatcher and Blair, to some extent, acted like dictators.
Taking decisions without consulting their Cabinet Ministers or Parliament, becoming the ultimate ‘face’ of their party and the whole country and having clear landslide victories do support this. Overall, UK’s Prime Ministers have acted like presidents, as the above-examples show, but we can take heart that today’s Prime Minister still holds cabinet meetings and still accountable to Parliament- even though he has a few more powers to exercise, we can still safely say that the British political system and the Prime Minister is still intact.