Dimensions of Prime Ministerial Power [Incomplete: for further
discussion in class]
1. Patronage in Cabinet, Government and Elsewhere.
- Appoints, promotes and dismisses Cabinet and government
- Allocates Cabinet and Government posts
- Appoints chairpersons and determines composition of
- Other patronage powers: appoints Permanent secretaries
[=senior civil servants], chairmen of commissions, senior judges and bishops
of Church of England, some life peers.
1b. Constraints: in relation to choice of Cabinet and
- Limited overall availability of talent, experience and
willingness to serve.
- Claim of senior colleagues for inclusion possibly in
specific posts : Tony Blair could not possibly exclude Gordon Brown; Gordon
Brown could not possibly exclude David Miliband or Jack Straw; David Cameron
could not possibly exclude William Hague or George Osborne or indeed Nick
Clegg or Vince Cable.
- Desirability of ideological balance: Mrs Thatcher 1979
was initially obliged to choose an ideologically balanced Cabinet although
she did gradually dismiss a large proportion of her ideological critics and
promote her supporters.
- Failure to select powerful MPS and/or the dismissal or
resignation of unhappy government ministers may create powerful enemies who
on the backbenches are unrestricted by the doctrine of collective cabinet
responsibility. E.g. Mrs Thatcher's eventual downfall was caused partly by
crucial opposition from Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine both of whom
had resigned from her cabinet.
- Dismissal of cabinet ministers may create an impression
of government in crisis which adversely affects the standing of the Prime
1c Constraints on other types of appointment
- Prime ministers may simply rubber stamp appointments
suggested by appropriate committees although there is ome evidence that Mrs
Thatcher did use her powers of appointment to influence the ideological
direction of the senior civil service
2.Authority of the PM within the Cabinet System
- Powers of appointment as outlined above
- Sets the overall direction of government and therefore of
- May involve himself /herself especially in policy areas
of his/her choosing.
- Determines number, approximate, length and agenda of
- Prime Minister may partly or totally restrict discussion
of important items in Cabinet: e.g. Mrs. Thatcher and refusal to allow
Cabinet discussion of ERM issue; Mr Blair and limited Cabinet discussion of
- The PM sums up the mood of Cabinet meetings; approves
Cabinet minutes which are always concise and may not provide a full accurate
record of Cabinet discussions.
- Packing of Cabinet Committees
- Use of small ministerial groups and bilateral meetings to
circumvent cabinet discussion.
- Doctrine of Collective Cabinet Responsibility means that
Cabinet Ministers must support all cabinet decisions even if they disagree
with them or resign. This restricts the opportunities for ministers to
criticise prime ministerial policies with which they disagree.
- It may not be possible to exclude important items from
the Cabinet agenda indefinitely.
- The PM will need Cabinet approval for controversial
measures such as the decision to invade Iraq and demonstration of Cabinet
support may actually enhance the PM's authority.
The PM could lose the support of senior colleagues by
disregarding their views, ultimately, over a period of years undermining his her
own position as occurred in the cases of Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair.
- Senior Ministers may eventually challenge the PM's
preferred position as happened , for example when Howe and Lawson eventually
challenged Mrs. Thatcher's position on the ERM.
- In any case convention dictates that certain items will
appear regularly on the cabinet agenda.
3 Prime Minister, Party and Parliament
- Leader of governing party outside Parliament and
therefore plays major role in the appointment of party officials and
determination of party policy. Extra-parliamentary party traditionally has
tended to play a greater policy role in the Labour Party than in other
political parties and has sometimes been difficult for the PM to control but
Tony Blair tightened his control over the extra =-parliamentary party in
- The PM [and the leaders of the opposition parties]
increasingly fast track preferred prospective parliamentary candidates
smoothing their adoption in safe parliamentary constituencies.
- Inside Parliament the PM's governing party will usually
have an overall Commons majority which means that its legislation will
usually be passed with relatively minor amendment.
- Government party MPs will usually vote along party lines
because of their basic agreement with party policy , for career reasons ,
because of unwillingness to create an impression of disunity, and because
PMs may threaten a dissolution which will be followed by a General Election
in which MPs may lose their seats....an unrealistic threat however because
the PM has much more to lose than individual MPs if a General Election is
- The extra-parliamentary Labour Party has sometimes
created difficulties for sitting Labour PMS: e.g. radical left wing
opposition to the policies of Prime Ministers Wilson, Callaghan and Blair.
- Opposition leaders and MPs may successfully challenge the
PM at PMQT undermining his//her credibility with the electorate who may
watch parts of this on TV.
- There are especially parliamentary difficulties if an
overall parliamentary majority is small orb where the party is not united
behind the Pm and a significant number of government backbenchers are
prepared to vote against the government.
- A PM may be constrained by the existence of powerful
rivals within his /her party especially if the rivals have significant
levels of support: the Blair -Brown rivalry is the most significant recent
example of such rivalry.
4.Prime Ministers and Public Standing
- The PM is the most prestigious and publicly visible
politician in the country and the mass media are likely to focus most
attention on the preferred policies of the PM.
- Mass Media attention focuses especially on the PM in
times of national crisis and when important international negotiations are
- The PM employs media professionals in an attempt to
ensure favourable mass media coverage.
- It is argued in general that politicians' images and
personalities are increasingly important determinants of voting behaviour
so that a PM who has just won a general election may to some extent claim
that s/he has a popular mandate to introduce his/her policies.
- Furthermore Prime Ministerial power is likely to be
higher when he and his party have high opinion poll ratings and vice versa.
- High visibility may mean that the PM is blamed for
policy failures which are not necessarily his/her fault.
- Careful mass media scrutiny via well informed
journalists/interviewers such as Jeremy Paxman or Jon Snow may mean that the
weaknesses of Prime Ministerial policies are uncovered.
- Growing exposure of spin and sleaze associated with the
PM may mean that an initially trusted PM may lose his/her reputation for
- These mass media difficulties may weaken the authority of
the PM in his Cabinet, in Parliament and in his/her party
Other sources of Prime Ministerial power and the constraints
related to them can be discussed in class.