As government and Politics

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Prime Ministers’ Power

  1. Power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss ministers

  2. Power to create peers

  3. Power to give out honours

  4. Power to appoint chairs of nationalised industries.

  5. Power to make other appointments (eg top civil servants, ambassadors, bishops and judges)

  6. Power over ministerial conduct (rules are laid out in the Ministerial Code (Cabinet Office,1997)

  7. Powers relating to government business (eg setting the agenda for cabinet meetings, setting up cabinet committees and choosing whether of not to circulate minutes or papers)

  8. Powers over information (eg deciding whether or not to inform Parliament about government activities and using the lobby system to inform the Media)

  9. Powers in international Relations

  10. Powers to terminate a Parliament or Government

    • The way in which Prime Ministers deal with the political circumstances of the time and relationship with Cabinet colleagues is determined by the leadership style.

    • Norton argues there are four main styles – Innovators, reformers, egoists and balancers.

    • The Skills Prime Ministers need include impression management, feel for the office, and knowing when to lead and when to react.

    • Margaret Thatcher gained the reputation for being a Prime Minister with Charismatic and dominating style, where as John Major was criticised for being weak and dithering

    • Like Thatcher, Tony Blair’s style us Charismatic and dominating

    • There is no Prime Minister’s department. There is however, a Prime Ministers Office

    • The Job of Private Office is to control the flow of information to the Prime Minister. The Political Office deals with party liaison. The Press Office looks after media. The Policy Unit develops policy and scrutinises the work of departments. The Strategic Communication Unit pulls together Downing street’s media work

    • Prime Minister also employs special advisers. Tony Blair has set up a number of task forces to deal with particular issues.

    • Some people argue that, in reality, a Prime Minister’s department already exists. Others argue that Prime Ministers would have greater control over government if a department was set up.

The Powers of the Prime Minister Explained

Power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss ministers
The PM’s first job is to create a cabinet, usually 20-24 senior party MPs/Lords in which most will head a department. Ministers without a portfolio will check on other ministers to ensure they are following the line of the PM.

They will often give the most important Cabinet positions to political allies including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Office, Home Department and Justice.

Difficult cabinet decisions are given to those who can be the focus of opposition to the PM. This includes Ministers who are highly popular and could challenge the PM’s position as leader.

Hard positions are also given to those in opposite wing of the party to keep it united (and to appeal to more of the electorate) and to avoid senior members beginning to become a disruption.

The PM can reshuffle the government team at any time replacing anyone ineffective or disloyal. Moving ministers around may break the link between ministers and failed policies in the mind of the electorate. This allows a PM to strengthen his position.

Furthered by the knowledge of backbenchers that know their career depends on the loyalty to the government and ultimately the PM (in the hope they will eventually be promoted to a ministerial position). A bad reshuffle may raise questions on the PM’s Judgement

Powers relating to government business

The PM summons and chairs cabinet meetings, they also decides agenda of meeting. They frame the context of the meeting, lead ministers to reach decisions in their favour – Margaret Thatcher was very effective at this and made her position very clear before starting the agenda and concluded meetings by saying “I think we have reached a decision”. She was also good at limiting discussion, ministers nicknamed her TINA – ‘There Is No Alternative’. PM’s can prevent issues from being discussed by not placing them on the agenda.

Major influence over policy

Has freedom to see the whole picture of the government’s situation which other ministers are not able to see as they have to worry about a department. Ministers know they owe their appointment to the PM so must remain loyal to him or face a possible reshuffle. A majority in Parliament enables the Prime Minister to get most if not all legislation through the Commons (Tony Blair did not suffer a single Commons defeat between 1997-2005).

Powers to terminate a Parliament or Government

The PM decides the timing of the election giving the party a distinct advantage over the other parties as they can hold an election when they are popular in the opinion polls. They can carry out harsher and unpopular policies early on in their term and later make popular decisions such as more benefits and cutting of taxes in order to win. This is criticised as it is open for abuse and gives the PM dictatorial powers – suggested should have fixed term parliaments like in the US (now has been agreed to be introduced by the coalition government).

Other prerogative powers

The PM recommends honours to the Queen and who should be the archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops.

They also recommend chair people of public bodies, agencies and quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) .

Tony Benn claimed these “Powers of Patronage” are the most significant powers of the PM and they are not greatly monitored or scrutinised. A PM can use them to assert their political views across a vast area of public life to ensure their policies were carried out without opposition.

Limits to the Prime Minister’s Power

Although the Prime Minister is the supreme authority of Government in our system, their powers are not unlimited and there are some limitations to what they can do.
The below table shows the rules under a normal one party government, see “How the Coalitions changes everything” (Page 20), to see the changes to the current rules.

Appointing the Cabinet

PMs have to appoint people that aren’t their natural supporters as they are senior members of the party or they will attract backbench support and criticise the PM. PMs have to satisfy all wings of the party to unite the party and prevent criticism thus avoiding splits. Parties that are not united don’t win elections. Political parties often referred to as “Broad Churches” as they have to bring in different opinions in order to apply to as many people as possible.

Limits to Dismissal

If an PM dismiss to many ministers to often this will cause the Prime Minsters to look weak, dismissed ministers can become a focus for opposition on the backbenches, demoted ministers may resign in anger and air their view in their resignation speech, for example Geoffery Howe resigned over disagreement with Margate Thatcher’s euro sceptic views. His resignation speech severely wounded Margate Thatcher and led to her resignation. He criticised her out of touch and domineering style of leadership. Claire Short did similar with Tony Blair criticising the government of cliques and reckless foreign policy – wasn’t as senior as Howe so wasn’t as damaging.

Controlling Cabinet business

Prime Ministers can find it difficult to keep items off the agenda if ministers are determined to discuss the matter. Keeping issues of the agenda can lead to resignations. E.g. the Westlands Affair over where we bought helicopters from – Europe or America. Michael Heseltine stormed out of the Cabinet in a public fashion and then mounted a leadership challenge. A group of ministers may be able to force policies upon the PM. Tony Blair found that Gordon Brown was able to stop any project he wanted to put through as he was in control of the money as Chancellor. Thatcher was defeated by her cabinet in her first years over the extent of public expenditure cuts.

Cabinet support

Senior party figures can force a PM to resign. This happened to Margate Thatcher, from 1989 increasing problems were experienced, the PM relied upon a small group of Cabinet Ministers and Special advisers. Margate Thatcher was increasingly isolated and unpopular with the party and the electorate.

In 1990 she was told she could not win the election and would be better for her and the party if she resigned so that she could then leave as a winner (never lost an election).

Other limitations – The people can remove the PM on the basis of a general election which they must call within every 5 years, PM has the power to make important decisions however the political stakes are sky-high (Iraq undermined the level of trust and confidence in TB, Britain’s victory in the Falkland’s was helped Margate Thatcher win the 1983 election), appointment of 4 life peers by Tony Blair in 2006 was dogged by controversy – “cash for peerages” scandal which led to questioning by the police, role of the legislature is to scrutinise the actions of the executive and no PM can ensure that his government programme will go through Parliament e.g. 90 day detention for terrorist suspects was defeated in November 2005.

The PM is not an elected dictator although certainly wields a considerable amount of power. Events have the capacity to strengthen or weaken a government.

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