How Powerful is the Prime Minister?

Without doubt the Prime Minister is the most important figure in the United Kingdom political system. Prime Ministers are powerful because they are at the head of three crucial relationships. Firstly, the cabinet, including individual Ministers and their departments. Secondly, their own party of which they are head of and through it, Parliament. Lastly the public and the electorate, with help from the media. However, Prime Ministers are not all the same, and differing leadership styles and motivational skills can have a big impact on how powerful they can be.

Firstly, Prime Ministers are powerful as they possess the power of patronage. This is the ability to sack, hire, promote or demote all ministers in government including Secretaries of States and other members of the cabinet. The Prime Minister can ensure ministers who are supportive, share in his ideological views or agree with his policies are promoted to powerful positions, whilst rivals or critics can be limited to junior positions or kept out of government completely. As ministers in government know, the Prime Minister can influence their political careers, and this ensures they remain loyal and supportive as they understand they ‘serve’ the Prime Minister. For example, Gordon Brown carried out the largest cabinet reshuffle in 100 years, sacking 11 members of the cabinet and hiring/promoting 9 MPs to cement his authority in government. However, certain cabinet members can possess a high level of power if they have a high public profile or have one of the ‘plum’ jobs. It is in the best interests of the Prime Minister to conciliate key cabinet colleagues as resignations can be extremely damaging to the Prime Minister publicly. For example, Margaret Thatcher’s reputation as Prime Minister was damaged by the resignations of Heseltine, Lawson and Howe. Furthermore, the current Prime Minister David Cameron is unable to wield the power of patronage to its full extent as the coalition means he is unable to sack Liberal Democrat ministers.

Secondly, the Prime Minister is powerful as he is the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. This sets him apart from all the other ministers and gives him/her an ‘aura’ of authority across the wider governmental system and in cabinet. Party members recognise that the party’s fortunes and successes are closely linked to the Prime Ministers personal standing which discourages public criticism and party splits. Nevertheless, party leadership is a responsibility as well as a position of power. As the party leader, the party looks to the Prime Minister to provide leadership that will ensure unity and stability, as well as delivering electoral success. Party loyalty can evaporate rapidly if the Prime Minister is viewed as unpopular or as an electoral liability. For example John Major was badly hamstrung by Eurosceptic backbenchers during his tenure as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997. Another example is that more than 80 Conservative MPs defied Cameron’s orders and backed a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union in 2011.

The Prime Minister can be described as powerful due to the increased access to the media in recent years. Due to the rising flow of information being fed out to the public on a daily basis through television, radio and the internet, this gives the Prime Minister a greater ability to influence. The Prime Minister is deemed powerful as the media tends to focus most on the political leaders, giving the Prime Minister the ability to appear ‘over the heads’ of their parties and governments. Prime Ministers have the power to control the flow of information to the public through the increased use of special advisors. For example, journalist Alistair Campbell was Tony Blair’s main advisor and ‘spin doctor’. This leads to emphasis on ‘spin’ whereby seemingly ‘bad news’ can be released at opportunistic times and the releasing of information close to media deadlines to prevent them checking the reliability of it. However, the use of ‘spin’ can be counter-productive as it undermines trust in the government and the credibility of the Prime Minister. Furthermore, due to commercial pressures, the media is under pressure to make politics ‘sexy’, leading to a tendency to ‘hype’ news stories, such as turning a criticism into a scathing attack. The media can also have an impact on the Prime Minister himself; for example, the constant media scrutiny of Gordon Brown’s personality and image, “unable to smile”, during the 2010 general election was a huge constrain on his electoral prospects.

In addition, the most significant factor when assessing how powerful the Prime Minister is, is the electorate. This is arguably the most important factor as it underpins all other factors. When the Prime Minister and the government are popular such as in 1997, the Prime Minister has a personal mandate to act and make key decisions. However, when government popularity dips and electoral chances are in doubt, the Prime Minister’s authority in cabinet and the party are not assured. For example, Tony Blair’s authority was weakened by Labour’s reduced majority in 2005 and increased support for the Conservative party in the polls.

Also, Prime Ministers can be viewed as powerful due to the build-up of bodies and advisors who support him/her. Tony Blair extended the cabinet office hugely and created many new departments such as the Delivery Unit and the Women’s Unit. Furthermore, Prime Ministers now receive far more institutional support from special advisors. However this is still incomparable to the institutional support received by the United States President. Prime Ministers still lack a department of their own, whereas US Presidents are not limited in terms of who they can pick to fill their cabinet as the executive and legislature are separate.

Another factor is that Prime Ministers can be seen as weak due to events that are out of their control. They are now held responsible for mistakes wherever they occur such as war casualties and economic problems. For example, Tony Blair’s public reputation was scarred by the suicide of David Kelly in 2003: this intensified media speculation about the basis on which the decision to go to war in Iraq was made and the trustworthiness of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Margaret Thatcher’s decision to go to war in the Falkland’s in 1982 brought her huge popularity after a victory and was a big impact on the comfortable success in the following general election.

It is fair to say that the Prime Minister’s powers are now largely informal as oppose to formal. This includes persuading and debating, and building and maintaining relationships as opposing to dictating. Although many factors play an important part in the power of a Prime Minister, for example how big his/her majority is in the House of Commons and the power of patronage. It is ultimately down to the leadership style and personality of a Prime Minister which truly determines if they are powerful or not.

Anonymous Contributer

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