What can influence the power of a Prime Minister?
The power of the Prime Minister also varies according to circumstances and how effective the holder of the post is. There are a number of aspects to this:-
The electoral popularity of the Prime Minister. A Prime Minister who has just won a general election will have prestige with their Party and Cabinet colleagues, and this is especially so for Prime Ministers, such as Thatcher and Blair, who have won more than one election. It is always expected that the Government will have some unpopularity mid-term between elections but if poor opinion poll ratings, by-election defeats and poor local election results continue they will affect the Prime Minister’s authority. The disastrous local election results in 1990, after the implementation of the poll tax, undermined Thatcher and continued by-election defeats affected Major.
The stresses of the job may now lead Prime Ministers to decide to retire after about 10 years and not just after a general election defeat. The announcements by Blair and now Cameron to that effect weaken their power as the anticipated date for them to stand down nears.
Although the Prime Minister’s resources and staff in No 10 have gradually increased so that they are able to exert control over the Government, the extent to which Prime Ministers want to do this has varied. Blair created strong control, even extending to having No 10 vet the speeches that Ministers were about to make, whereas Cameron, partly in reaction against this, reduced No 10’s interventions, but soon found that he had lost control over the Health Secretary’s controversial plans to reorganise the NHS and so reinstated some of these. Thatcher kept strong control, keeping up with everything that was being decided in each Cabinet Committee, whereas Major wanted a more cooperative style and more discussion in Cabinet and Cameron prefers only to intervene if necessary. Even with more resources, the Prime Minister cannot intervene in every issue and has to be selective and his or her ability to do so varies according to what they are interested in and how much experience and understanding they have of topics.
Events can either enhance or destabilise a Premiership. Thatcher had problems with public support and her Party until hre success with the Falklands War in 1982 whereas Major never really recovered from being the first Conservative Prime Minister to devalue the £ in 1992. Blair was the only Labour Prime Minister not to have to deal with an economic crisis. The public reaction to the Poll Tax helped to undermine Thatcher in 1990.
Relationships with other Cabinet Ministers have an impact on the power of the Prime Minister. Some of these may have been rivals for the leadership in the past or in the future or may have important disagreements with the Prime Minister over policy, so keeping Cabinet unity is important. Gordon Brown was given an enhanced role as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Blair and was able to control considerable areas of public policy but the relationship between them became difficult and Blair never felt strong enough to resolve this by sacking Brown. In contrast, the relationship between Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has been close. The Cabinet collectively can bring down the Prime Minister. When Margaret Thatcher was challenged for the Conservative Party leadership and failed to win on the first ballot, it was Cabinet Ministers who told her that she had to go, whereas the Cabinet never combined to remove Brown despite problems within the Government and in the opinion polls.
Divisions within the party nationally or within the Parliamentary Party can undermine the Prime Minister. Wilson was careful to manage the Labour Party from the centre and made party unity a priority. Blair was able to ignore the left of the party because of his large Parliamentary majority and electoral success but he never really recovered his prestige after the decision to go to war with Iraq split the party. Major was damaged by the split in his party and Cabinet .over Europe and even lost his Parliamentary majority for a period when a small of group of Conservative MPs lost the whip. Cameron was able to ignore the right wing of his party under the Coalition, as the Liberal Democrat provided a secure Parliamentary majority, but this will not be possible now he only has a majority of 12.
The Coalition weakened Cameron’s power to appoint ministers and to get some policies through, as these needed the approval of the Liberal Democrats, but, on the other hand, his natural inclination to get a consensus worked well within a Coalition Government. Prime Ministers without a majority, as Harold Wilson experienced after February 1974, have limited power to get policies through. When Callaghan lost his Parliamentary majority as a result of by-election defeats he had to make compromises with the Liberals to stay as Prime Minister.