The purpose of this essay is to describe and discuss the powers of the British Prime Minister and which implications arise from his position for the government and politics. This essay will consist of three parts. In the first part the main powers of the Prime Minister (PM), currently David Cameron, will be considered. These include his tasks as head of government, the right to select his cabinet and to dismiss ministers, to represent the country abroad and more functions, which will be explained in more detail below.
In the second part the limits of his powers will be illustrated and how effective they are. These will lead to the third section, where it will be discussed whether the Prime Minister is too powerful. The focus will be especially on the argument whether Britain has a more prime ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government.
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Furthermore a comparison with the powers of the German chancellor is made, and it will be reviewed if the organisation of the office of German Chancellor is a better manner to regulate the powers of the PM. Lastly, it is discussed which reforms are possible to reduce the Prime Minister’s powers.
The Roles of the Prime Minister
As head of the UK government, the PM is probably the most influential person in British politics. To the present day 52 men and one woman have passed through the doors of Number 10 Downing Street as British Prime Minister. The office of the PM is the creation of convention, and the role and the powers conferred on him still depend mainly on convention and political circumstances. His powers are not defined in legislation, instead they evolved as a matter of political expediency and historically evolution. Moreover, it now appears to be a firm convention that the Prime Minister should be a member of the House of Commons.
Most of the powers to be discussed derive from the royal prerogative.The royal prerogative is supposed to give the Monarch substantial power as the Head of State. However, the prerogative powers should be understood „not as personal discretionary powers of the Monarch“, but as „clearly circumscribed constitutional duties to be carried out on the advice of the PM.
He is the principal government figure in the House of Commons and has a general authority to intervene in any sphere of government. The Prime Minister controls the central government apparatus in that he decides how the tasks of government should be allocated to departments and whether departments should be created, amalgamated or abolished. Furthermore it is the PM who appoints the members of the Cabinet and „sets the pace“ of Cabinet activity. He may ask ministers to resign, recommend the Queen to dismiss them or, with their consent, move them to other offices. Lord Atlee has said that an important quality in a Premier is the capacity to dismiss inadequate ministers. The Prime Minister is able to control Cabinet discussions and the process of decision-making by setting the order of business, and may name one of the Cabinet to be Deputy Prime Minister, or first Secretary of State. Therefore the power of appointment is one of the chief ways a Prime Minister keeps his control over his party. By controlling influential committees, the PM can also ensure that he drives the policies of these committees. Accordingly, it can be said that the Prime Minister is in a position to exercise a dominant influence over the Cabinet, having powers that other ministers do not have.
The PM customarily holds the titular position of First Lord of the Treasury. His approval is also required for the appointment of the most senior civil servants and important Crown appointments are filled on his nomination, for example, high-ranking members of the Church of England and senior judges. Furthermore, he also has control over the Cabinet Office. The PM, in addition, retains other patronage powers. He still advises the Queen on new peerages, on appointments to the Privy Council and the grant of honours. The Prime Minister’s Office supports him in his role as head of government. This includes providing policy advice and ensuring effective communications to Parliament and the public. Most Prime Ministers must take a special interest in foreign affairs, the economy and defence. The Queen is Britain’s head of state, but the PM is Britain’s de facto representative abroad. He often takes a leading role in foreign relations, dealing directly with other heads of government, and is also likely to take the lead on major issues as the national and international response to the crisis in Libya.
Another function of the PM is that he is also in a position to dominate if not control the government’s communication to the press, and to disclose information about government decisions and the Cabinet business. He has regular meetings with the Queen and is responsible for keeping the Queen informed of the Cabinet’s handling of affairs.
As has become clear above, the PM is involved in all aspects of government in a way that no other government official is, and thus it is safe to say that, despite the limits on his power (see below), the PM can be considered the most influential person in politics.
Limits of his power
Despite the Prime Minister’s emerged position within British politics there are limits to his powers. Firstly, one great limit comes from the party he represents. If the PM loses the support from his party’s backbenchers, his position becomes very fragile. Therefore the biggest danger is that a Prime Minister builds up a range of enemies. One example for that is what happened to Margaret Thatcher, when another minister, who disagreed with her policies, put an effective revolt against her style of leadership, which led to her resignation. This means that if the PM loses the support of his party, he will almost always have to resign as PM, as he will not be able to exercise his role effectively.
Moreover, all Prime Ministers must include most senior party colleagues in the Cabinet, who could always be some troublemakers, if they don’t get the position they would like to have.
The PM’s powers of appointment are also limited by the need to provide a balance of party views in the Cabinet. Therefore an authoritative leadership of the party is a main factor for a PM to be successful.
Additionally there are other ways in which the PM’s powers are limited. For instance the fact that he is seen to be publicly responsible for any major mishap that occurs during his time in power. As the most known member of the government, it is he that the public blame when they aren’t satisfied with politics. Margaret Thatcher was held responsible for the problems in association with the Poll Tax and Tony Blair has been accused of being too friendly with the USA’ President Bush.
This means that the electorate body has the power to remove the PM by way of elections, and so the PM is indirectly also controlled in this way. This is referred to as indirect as the body can not directly stop any decisions the PM makes, but can stop him from continuing in the office of PM when general elections take place by voting for another party.
As another limitation can be seen the questioning time on Wednesday, which is an opportunity for the leader of the opposition and other members of the House of Commons to ask the PM supplementary questions on any subject. Therefore he is directly accountable to the Parliament for his actions and decisions. However, the PM will be extensively briefed by government departments in anticipation of likely subjects he could be asked about and they cannot force him to change his engagements.
Additionally the European Union has the power to influence government policy by imposing on member states’ policies. Even though the Conservatives have generally not been very happy with this imposition on the British State, David Cameron still accepted when he became PM that the UK is part of the EU, and that therefore, it has to adhere to certain decisions. He, as PM, had to compromise on this point for him to effectively lead the country.
Although the courts have long had the power to determine the existence and extent of a prerogative power, traditionally they have had no power to regulate the manner of its exercise. The position is now governed by the decision of the House of Lords in CCSU v Minister of State for Civil Service (1985). The judiciary placed some restraints on executive use of the royal prerogative. But not every prerogative power is justiciable: matters such as the appointment of Ministers, the disposition of the armed force and the dissolution of Parliament are still beyond judicial control.The justiciability of the prerogative powers could in theory have been a powerful limit on the PM’s powers. However, in practice it has shown this was not so, as only limited part of the prerogative powers is in fact justiciable and that there are limits to what extent remedies are available. Also, this limit does not prevent or deter the PM on acting in a particular way, it will only compensate certain groups or people after an event has occurred, and so does not even directly affect the PM.
As seen above the Prime Minister has big political powers, but this power is also balanced by the fact that there are limitations to that power. Although some of these limitations are really effective, most of the powers of the PM can not easily be influenced.
Is the Prime Minister too powerful?
In the last 40 years the powers of the Prime Minister within the British political structure have developed to such an extent that some critical politicians and academics now refer to Britain as having a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government. He is the „keystone of the Cabinet arch“, occupying a position which is one of the exceptional and peculiar authority. In essence this means that the office of PM is very much attached to the person by which is meant that the individual PM has a discretion in which way to exercise his powers. If the PM is very popular than the limits given above will have very little effect as most of them are heavily dependent on the dislike of and disagreement with the PM and his politics.
Recently, more emphasis has been placed on the role of the Prime Minister and less on the Cabinet itself and therefore it is argued that the description of British government simply as „Cabinet government“ had become misleading, for „the country is governed by the Prime Minister“.
The PM has three main functions, which give him his enormous powers within the British government: being able to appoint and dismiss ministers; by setting the agenda for Cabinet discussions, and by controlling the remit and membership of Cabinet committees. Certainly the way in which these powers are operated naturally differs from one PM to another. This is an immense concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister, particularly discharging is one of his ultimate weapons.
The argument of prime ministerial dominance seemed to be confirmed by the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. By displacing some important decision-making to informal, ad hoc groups of ministers convened by herself she diminished the role of Cabinet and demonstrated the dominant authority that can be wielded by a PM.
As evidence of strengthened prime ministerial control under Mr Blair can be also cited paragraph 9.2 of the Ministerial Code: In order to ensure the effective presentation of government policy, all major interviews and media appearances should be agreed with the No 10 Press Office before any commitments are entered into(…). As explained above, therefore the PM is in a position to dominate the government’s communication to the press.
Another claim of his overwhelming power is that Cabinet meetings are too dominated by the PM. The members of the Cabinet are simply ‘yes-sayers’. „With Mr Tony Blair there has been a reversion to a „command and control“ premiership with centralised and informal processes of decision-making tending to displace collective discussions in Cabinet and Cabinet committees“.
Also the doctrine of collective responsibility helps to strengthen the powers of the Prime Minister, as ministers must not criticise government policy in public. This is underlined by the fact that many decisions of government are not taken by the Cabinet as a whole, but by the Prime Minister in consultation with a few key colleagues. Moreover, there are those who believe that the personality of the Prime Minister is now almost as important as stated party policies. But the implication is that if people vote for personalities as much as issues, then the opponent has no chance of winning the next election as long as the current PM’s personality and manner are still popular with the people. All these facts have led some to seek ways to limit or control the power of the PM in order to rehabilitate the Cabinet government.
Thus far, it has been established that the PM has great amounts of power and that it seems that Britain currently has a more prime ministerial government than a Cabinet government. However, to demonstrate whether the PM can be considered as too powerful, it would be best to compare his function with that of the German Federal Chancellor, who has the equivalent role in Germany. Even though the legal foundations of the political systems of the United Kingdom and Germany are very different, the roles of the PM and the Chancellor are in many ways very similar, and so this comparison would be a good way to show how powerful the PM actually is, and whether that could be considered as being too powerful.
The German Chancellor is the head of government. Currently this position is held by Angela Merkel of the CDU. The Chancellor determines the guidelines of government policy, so called Richtlinienkompetenz. He is elected every four years by a majority of the members of the Bundestag upon the recommendation of the President. For this election a majority of all elected members of the Bundestag is required, which should ensure to establish a stable government. The Chancellor has the power to choose his ministers and to determines the number of ministries and their responsibilities.
Another power is that the Chancellor himself can propose a vote of no confidence.Therefore he can test whether he still enjoys the unlimited support of the governing parties.
The powers of the German Chancellor are also limited. Removing the Chancellor from office is an alternative when there is no more political consensus between the parties before a general elections for a new Bundestag.In the German history there have been only three occasions where this happened. This course of action was taken in order to prematurely dissolve the Bundestag, which according to the constitution is otherwise not possible. This ensures that no single party can form a government on its own.
Furthermore limitations can be given from decisions of the Federal Constitutional court: It allows the authority and the citizens to present a complaint to abolish a law they found infringing the terms set in Basic Rights.
In comparison to the Prime Minister the power to appoint members of high authority, legalise acts and dissolve parliament is vested in the German Bundesprasident.
The fifty-year history of the Federal Republic has shown that despite the Chancellor’s strong position the ability of the government to act cannot be guaranteed by him alone. Even though the Chancellery makes it possible to impose central management and coordination, a non-hierarchical relationship between the Chancellor and his Ministers plays an important role in government practice. In this context the Cabinet deals with important interministerial issues such as the federal budget or tax reform and takes joint decisions on them (“principle of joint Cabinet decision-making”). In a government coalition the Chancellor is also bound by the terms of the coalition agreement and has to adhere to these terms to avoid straining the coalition.
The “principle of joint Cabinet decision-making” means that the Chancellor and the Ministers decide jointly on matters of general political importance. When there are differences of opinion between Ministers the Chancellor mediates (as a “primus inter pares”). Cabinet decisions are based on majority rule. The “principle of ministerial autonomy” means that each Minister conducts the affairs of his ministry independently and on his own responsibility. This means that the Chancellor cannot automatically intervene in his Ministers’ areas of responsibility. At the same time Ministers must see to it that the decisions they take remain within the limits.
As can be seen by this comparison the British PM and the Chancellor in theory have very similar powers, but in practice the PM has a lot more power than the Chancellor as he has more discretion about the execution of these powers. However, before one can say that this means he is too powerful, the effectiveness of the functions of Prime Minister and Chancellor have to be compared.
In fact, in the six decades of the Bundestag, there have been only eight Chancellors – a remarkable element of stability. In the same period of time, Britain has had 14 Prime Ministers.
In the British parliamentary system usually only has one party in power, because the first-past-the-post system there favours the strongest party. There have only been a few hung parliaments. The latest elections resulted in this, and currently the UK has a coalition government, existing out of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In May there will be a referendum to change the voting system, and if the voting system as a consequence of this is in fact changed to one of additional voting, then this might all change.
Since Germany has a system of proportional representation for the election of its lower house, no one party has ever had a clear majority in the last 60 years, and for this reason all German governments have been coalitions.
Finally, there is the question, which reforms of the PM’s position are could be made, and what their advantages and disadvantages would be.
One way of reform would be the limit of the PM’s power to a greater extent to prevent the role of PM to be so attached to the person, and instead to be more like the German Chancellor’s position, whose powers are more controlled by the political process.
The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee recommended that the government should initiate a public consultation about Minister’s executive powers, which would include proposals for legislation to provide for greater parliamentary control over all such ministerial powers. Furthermore, changing the way in which Cabinet meetings and decisions are made would be helpful in a similar way. The PM would still lead the Cabinet, but could not unilaterally ignore their opinions and views and would be forced to take them into account.
In addition, by giving the PM perhaps also a more mediating role rather than just a leading role, the resources of various departments would come to better use. The PM would by supporting the other ministers in their responsibilities and by organising better co-operation between the different ministerial departments achieve better results. The better these departments function with each other, the less dependent they would be on the PM, and in that way his power would be limited.
In my opinion the rules regarding the operation of parliament and its processes should be clearer as they would provide for another method of limiting the PM’s power.
It can also be argued that the entire office of the PM should codified in a statute. The move away from an unwritten constitution – with statutory provisions – limits the PM’s scope,for example an Act of Parliament which states that there has to be a PM, how and who should be appointed for the role, and what the powers attached to this position would be.
Lastly, the changing of the voting system might lead to far reaching consequences for the office of PM, as explained above. However, at this point, this is all theory as the referendum still has to take place, and even if it takes place, it might show people do not wish a change in the voting system. Even if it does, the politicians will still first have to act on this before anything changes.
As this should make clear there are ways in which the position of the Prime Minister can be reformed in a way that will limit his power to the extent that he is no longer too powerful, but still powerful enough to carry out his function in an appropriate way.
The British Prime Minister has extensive personal power, which prevent there from being an „average“ Prime Minister. The power of the PM will change according to the personality of the PM, his popularity, the success of his government, external circumstances and the resources of other actors within the core executive.James Barber argued that by putting the three factors together – constitutional and political frameworks, circumstance and personality – the picture that emerges is one of fluctuating powers, whereby sometimes a PM may appear to have presidential-like position, and at others he is subject to obvious constraints. All these things will have an important effect on how powerful the PM is. As written above, there are some possibilities in which way his power can be reduced and more controlled, and in that way to achieve a “Cabinet government” rather than a prime ministerial government. The PM should not be a presidential figure, but able to lead the Cabinet and ensure that decisions are made.
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