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The British Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister is in a strong position within the system:-

As Head of the Government PMs can intervene in any policy area that he or she sees as important. The limit to this is that the PM is only one person, albeit with a considerable staff, as so has to be strategic in what is dealt with and a topic has to be handled quickly before the next issue comes along. One of the faults of Gordon Brown as PM is that he wanted to micromanage a whole range of areas and so decisions were not being taken quickly enough. The PM decides the agenda for Cabinet with the Cabinet Secretary and agrees what papers will go to Cabinet.

The Operation at Number 10

Prime Ministers have been able to extend their influence through creating a larger operation at No 10. The Prime Minister’s Office was expanded considerably under both Thatcher and Blair. Cameron reacted against Blair’s style of trying to control everything through No 10 and decided to reduce its size but then found Departments were doing things that he would have stopped, such as the Environment Department’s idea to sell Britain’s forests, and No 10 also failed to appreciate the problems of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms and so the size has been increased again. Theresa May has brought in many special advisers from her days at the Home Office and the size seems to have stayed the same.

There are three main elements:-

a) The Private Office (now part of a Policy and Government Unit). With a Chief of Staff (created by Tony Blair as a political appointment whereas previously No 10 was run by senior civil servants) and a Permanent Secretary this looks to pick up issues and make sure that they get dealt with

b) The Communications Unit. The Press Office deals with the media and pushes stories No 10 want to see covered. Bernard Ingham for Mrs Thatcher and Alistair Campbell for Tony Blair took the influence of the PM Press Officer to a new level. This office was sent into disrepute following the resignation and subsequent successful prosecution of Andy Couslon on phone hacking charges during his time as a journalist.

c) The Policy Unit. This has given The PM the capacity to develop and monitor policy independently of the rest of Government. Blair, for example, had a section developing ideas on Social Exclusion. Cameron did away with it but, after a year, found that some capacity for policy ideas was necessary and re-created it. (Anthony Seldon’s article for Prospect Magazine 28th April 2010 paints a good picture of what No 10 is like)

Making Appointments

PM’s appoint all members of the Government and can dismiss any of them at a moment’s notice. This power of patronage helps them to control the Cabinet and the Parliamentary Party, although, once sacked, ex-ministers may cause trouble in Parliament and with the media. Nevertheless PMs have to balance the Government by choosing from the different factions in the party and sacking major Cabinet figures can be problematic.

When Mrs Thatcher had moved her Foreign Secretary and then her Chancellor of the Exchequer resigned, it destabilised the Government and she was gone within a year.

Tony Blair decided that he could not sack Gordon Brown despite the arguments between them and was constantly having to find a balance between Blairite and Brownite ministers when he changed the composition of the Government.

Theresa May following the decision to leave the European Union appointed a mixture of ‘remainers’ and leave or Brexit supporters. Prime Ministers are also able to make appointments to the non-departmental bodies.

Royal Prerogative Powers

The Prime Minister has a range of powers under the Royal Prerogative including reorganising Government Departments and declaring war. These are the common law powers of the Monarch that have now devolved on the Prime Minister.

Although major issues are debated by Parliament it is up to the Prime Minister to decide whether to take notice of any vote. Normally Prime Ministers have a loyal majority in Parliament and the Whips make sure that they follow the Government line. The combination of these factors creates a much stronger executive than in most other countries

High Profile

The Prime Minister is by a long way the most high profile person in the Government.

The PM has to perform in the media, especially in crises, and, unlike ministers, his or her popularity in measured by opinion polls and ultimately by the general election. Meetings with European and World leaders add to the PM’s prestige.

The PM is the party leader at the centre of key Parliamentary occasions, answers to meetings of the Parliamentary Party and gives the keynote speech to the Party Conference.

The difference between this and other factors is that the Prime Minister’s personal prestige and ability to get their policy preferences through increases if public and party popularity is high, but decreases when things are going badly and the party is disunited.


There has been an academic debate as to whether British Prime Ministers are becoming Presidential with the idea that they are becoming more powerful within the Core Executive.

In a sense the question is meaningless because Presidential systems, particularly that of the United States, are of a different kind.

The US President does not have to cope with other major party figures in Government but, on the other hand, cannot be sure to get legislation through Congress. Nevertheless, in The Presidentialisation of Politics edited by Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb, 2007, they argue, in their comparative study of a range of countries, that:-

– The internationalisation of politics strengthens the Prime Minister as against their parliamentary parties

– The resources that Prime Ministers have in terms of staff, media experts and policy experts has greatly increased

– With a weakening of identification of voters with parties there has been the personalisation of politics so that the party leader is more important in the media and in elections

Michael Foley’s book, The British Presidency: Tony Blair and the Politics of Public Leadership, 2000, had applied the thesis to Britain.

Other writers have been more sceptical and, for example, Keith Dowding argues that Prime Ministers have always been more powerful than Presidents and their power fluctuates with changing situations (Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 66 No 3, 2013).

Other work has looked instead at the leadership abilities Prime Ministers bring to the position – see Kevin Theakston’s article on Cameron on our website and his analysis of four previous PMs (Politics and Policy, Vol. 30 No 2, 2002).