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The PM , The Cabinet, The Core Executive and The "British Presidency" : A Brief Note

Political scientists from the 1950s to the 1990s focused their attention on the range of factors which may have contributed to the transition from Cabinet Government to Prime Ministerial Government. In so doing although they recognised that in general Prime Ministerial Power may have increased they recognised also that Prime Ministerial Power was itself a variable which depended upon the personal qualities and characteristics of the PM and of other important politicians and leaders and on the political standing of the Prime Minister which in turn depended upon such factors as the degree of party unity, the perceived effectiveness of government policies among the electorate, the size of the government's parliamentary majority, the strength of the opposition parties and the extent of mass media support or criticism. On this basis it could be argued that Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair were in general more dominant than Mr Major and Mr Brown partly because of personality differences and partly because of differences in political circumstances.

However it is true also that the power of individual Prime Ministers varies according to political circumstances. Broadly speaking  Mrs Thatcher's powers within the political system were relatively limited when she first became PM but increased significantly as she gradually dismissed critical Cabinet Ministers, organised the military recapture of the Falkland Islands and won successive General Elections in 1983 and 1987. However by the late 1980s she was subjected to increasing criticism as  a result of here confrontational political style, the disunity within the Conservative Party over Europe, the declining success of her economic policies and the problems associated with the introduction of the Poll Tax all of which contributed to her resignation in 1990. It is here that we might refer to Professor George Jones interesting " elastic band theory of Prime Ministerial Power": a Prime Minister such as Mrs Thatcher may stretch her authority over the Cabinet but eventually the Cabinet may reassert its authority: the elastic band swings back and the PM is gone!

In any case, however, from the 1990s onwards a new approach to the study of the Centre of British Government was developed [particularly by Professors R. Rhodes and M. Smith ] known as the Core Executive Model of British Government. The Core Executive is the network of institutions at the centre of British Government including the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's Office, the Cabinet, the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Committees, the Bank of England, the individual Departments of State [among which the Treasury, the Home Office  and the Foreign Office are the most significant], senior MPs and even, perhaps the representatives of major insider pressure groups. Political decision making involves ongoing negotiation among some or all of these groups each of which have powers of different kinds.

Although the PM may often appear to be the most significant individual within the Core Executive there will be many times when s/he will have to negotiate a preferred outcome and will certainly not be able to impose it. Indeed the success of the PM depends upon the collaboration of Ministers not on the ability of the PM to dominate them. We may refer here to the distinction between zero sum and variable sum concepts of power: with the zero sum concept there is a given amount of power and the PM might increase his /her power at the expense of the Cabinet such that no increase in the total amount of power occurs: however using a variable sum concept of power the PM might allow Cabinet Ministers some autonomy as a result of which they develop more effective policies leading to increasing government popularity including increased popularity and power for the PM : collaboration has increased the total amount of power in existence.

In another  recent theoretical development surrounding the  powers of the PM  some theorists  [and especially Professor M. Foley in his study "The British Presidency {2000]] have focused on particular dimensions of Prime Ministerial Power to suggest that the British Prime Minister is becoming increasingly "presidential".  It is argued that the British PM has become more presidential in the following senses.

  1. The PM is said to exercise increasingly "spatial" leadership distancing himself/ herself from their political party and from the government for which they are responsible. Thus in particular Mrs Thatcher hoped to convert the Conservative Party to her version of New Right ideology much as Mr Blair  wished to replace the ideology of "Old Labour" with that of "New Labour". We may also see early evidence of this tendency in David Cameron's attempts to change Conservative Party ideology in the direction of "Compassionate Conservatism".
  2. The Pm is said to engage more in exercises in "populist outreach" speaking directly to the people not as leader of a particular political party but as a national leader speaking to the concerns of the nation as a whole as for example when Mr Blair described the late Princess Diana as the "People's Princess and successive Prime Ministers have focused on the tragedy of casualties associated with recent wars. Similarly Prime Ministers increasingly visit war zones in the roles as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces . In these respect the PM could to some extent be seen as taking over some of the functions often associated with a Head of State which is a function of Presidents but not of Prime Ministers .
  3. General Election campaigns have become increasingly presidential in that they focus very heavily on the Party leaders and voters are now voting increasingly for party leaders in elections rather than for parties and their policies. This of course does not mean that the latter are now unimportant.
  4.  As a result of this once a PM has been returned to power s/he is increasingly likely to argue that this gives her/him a mandate to shape policy in her/his preferred direction even though there may be opposition within the PM's : Thus Mrs Thatcher claimed a mandate for "New Right " policies and  Blair claimed a mandate for the introduction of " New Labour" policies.
  5. PMs have appointed increasing numbers of special advisers; they have increased the resources of the Prime Minister's Office; they have made more political appointments within the Civil Service;  and they have downgraded the importance of the Cabinet. It is argued that in all of these respects the resources of the PM are increasing and becoming similar to those which are available to a US President

However the idea of the British Presidency has been criticised on several grounds.

  1. It has been argued that the theory focuses heavily on the premierships of powerful charismatic PMs such as Thatcher and Blair but that other recent PMs such as  John Major and Gordon Brown were less presidential in the above senses.
  2. It has been argued , again, especially in relation to Thatcher and Blair that there may well have been a change in the style of the Prime Ministerial role but not in its substance and that this is because differences in the systems of government restrict the similarities of the Prime Ministerial and Presidential roles.

We might conclude that although here are some convergences in the nature of Prime Ministerial  and Presidential roles so that the UK PM could be said to be becoming more "presidential" in the context of the British system of government, the significance of these changes should perhaps not be overstated. Also given the major differences in the UK and USA systems of government it is not true to say that the UK Premiership  is evolving into a US -style presidency but this is not the claim of Professor Foley's theory; note that his book is entitled "The British Presidency".