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How is the power of the Prime Minister changing?
The ‘presidentialization thesis’ claims that the power of the Prime Minister is increasing so that he or she can no longer be seen as just the most important member of the Cabinet but is now more like an American President.
In practice, some factors are increasing the power of the Prime Minister and some factors are decreasing this power but the way the power is exercised also varies with circumstances and with the character of the holder of the office.
Factors increasing power
The Prime Minister has gradually developed a stronger international role. The Prime Minister represents Britain at a range of international summits such as the G7 meetings and European Union meetings and has considerable autonomy from the Cabinet in deciding what to negotiate about and what Britain’s position will be. The development of the War on Terror by Bush and Blair has also meant that the Prime Minister has an enhanced role in relation to defence and security issues. This gives The Prime Minister an extra authority in the country and with his party.
Prime Ministers from Wilson onward have gradually increased the role of the Prime Minister’s Office and by 2000 the staff had exceeded 200. This has involved a Policy Unit so that the Prime Minister can develop ideas and proposals, independent of the Departments runs by Cabinet Ministers, and, under Blair, also a unit to look at whether policies were being carried out.
There has been the growth of special advisers loyal to the Prime Minister who can help to exert authority over other Departments and, again under Blair, a team of press officers that were more ready to put the Government’s case to the media rather than just provide information. The Cabinet Office whose role was to coordinate Government as a whole has, since the Blair Premiership, increasingly come under the control of the Prime Minister.
The Treasury has exerted more control over spending Departments and, as long as the relationship between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister is a good one, this can enhance the power of the latter.
The 24 hour news cycle of constant media coverage means that the Prime Minister has to quickly deal with any Government problem that occurs and, if necessary overrule Cabinet colleagues, in order to stop the Government from being portrayed as weak.
The personality and capabilities of party leaders have become more important in British General elections with media attention on them. This means that the success of the party is more dependent on the success of the leader and so any disloyalty which undermines the Prime Minister can affect party support. Party ideologies have faded in significance as a factor with voters.
Factors decreasing power
Key areas of policy such as health and education are now devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Governments and so the UK Prime Minister has no power to intervene in these areas. The Prime Minister has had to develop a new role in negotiating with the Scottish or Welsh Prime Ministers, for example, over what else can be devolved but this may not be from a position of strength. Devolution has also given the Prime Minister’s parties in Scotland and Wales more autonomy, as Blair found when he failed to control the Welsh Labour Party’s choice of leader.
Many areas of policy are now decided by negotiation in Europe with Ministers taking the lead rather than the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will negotiate major issues, such as treaty changes, with other European Heads of Government but cannot be certain to get what he or she wants, as Cameron’s recent discussions on EU reform have shown.
The Prime Minister has had a range of prerogative powers which have meant that decisions can be taken without the approval of Parliament but recent changes have limited a number of these:-
The Fixed Term Parliament Act has taken away the power of the Prime Minister to choose the exact date of the general election. Previously Prime Minister could go to the country when conditions were favourable and also use the threat of a general election to bring rebellious backbenchers into line, as John Major did to pass the Maastricht Treaty. Calling an early election will probably now need a vote in Parliament.
Although Prime Ministers would bring foreign policy issues to Parliament they have had a prerogative power to declare war and sign treaties without Parliamentary approval. The vote in Parliament on the Iraq war and, more especially, Cameron’s defeat on a vote on British military intervention in Syria is now establishing that Parliamentary approval is increasingly needed in these instances.
The Prime Minister is able to make appointments to the House of Lords, and still can, but there is now an Independent Appointments Commission to vet the people that the Prime Minister is proposing.
The Prime Minister can make appointments to a range of public bodies but House of Commons Select Committees now have the power to interview the person proposed and give a view on their suitability.
Although Prime Ministers can command a secure majority in the Commons, in most circumstances, the House of Lords has become more active in looking amending Government legislation with the gradual increase in the number of peers with expertise and the removal of almost all hereditary peers. We now have the first majority Conservative Government without a majority in the House of Lords.
Although Prime Ministers have developed a stronger leadership role because of media attention this can easily also lead to bad publicity, which will undermine them.