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Are British Prime Ministers becoming more like U.S Presidents?     

Academics have debated the ‘presidential thesis’ for some time.

The thesis suggests that the role of British Prime Ministers have developed into one more similar to that of a President.

Three ways the British Prime Minister’s role has enhanced

There are three factors which have enhanced the power of the Prime Minister above that of other members of the Cabinet. These factors make him or her more like the American President.

A stronger international role

Just as the US President is broadly in control of American foreign and defence policy so has the Prime Minister developed a stronger international role.

The Prime Minister represents Britain at a range of international summits such as the G7 meetings. They have considerable autonomy from the Cabinet in deciding what to negotiate about and what Britain’s position will be. (paid link)

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.

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A central policy unit

The Prime Minister, like the US President, now has a large central staff.

It can develop policies, control the Government machine and influence the media.

The 24 hour news cycle of constant media coverage means the Prime Minister has to quickly deal with any Government problem that occurs in order to stop it being portrayed as weak Government. Therefore, like the US President, they have become seen as the central figurehead of Government.

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. Under Prime Minister’s David Cameron and Theresa May the role of special advisers, dictating policy, has also been more prominent.

The growing importance of personality

The US President is elected directly by voters and the personality and experience of those standing for Presidential office is tested by the media in Presidential elections.

In the same way, the personality and capabilities of party leaders have become more important in British general elections.

US Presidents have never been dependent on their party to stay in office.  Equally the British Prime Minister has become more powerful as against the Parliamentary Party and his or her party colleagues.

Criticisms of the Presidential Thesis

There are a number of criticisms of the presidential thesis. The first is that comparisons are very difficult to make.

The British political system is very different to the American political system, and indeed those of other countries such as France and Russia with a powerful President.

The US President is also the Head of State and has a symbolic prestige within the nation that the British Prime Minister will never have.  The President can appeal to the public over the heads of Congressmen. The Prime Minister could never ignore Parliament.

The President remains in position regardless of what happens in Congress, even if it is controlled by the other party. The President is directly elected by the people and so is relatively independent of his party.

The Prime Minister depends on a majority in Parliament. They are leader of their party and so need to be careful to maintain unity among the parliamentary party and the wider party in the country.

The President can appoint whoever he wants to run Government Departments. They create a team of people who depend on them and are loyal to them (hopefully).

The Prime Minister has to appoint significant politicians who may even be rivals, has to manage the Cabinet system and keep unity within the Government.

How are British Prime Ministers more powerful than Presidents?

In other ways Prime Ministers are actually more powerful within their political systems than Presidents.

A Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament can be sure to get policies and legislation through pretty much all the time.  The President and his Office have to spend a lot of time trying to put together a majority in Congress for policies that the President wants to see.

For example, this is what happened with Obama’s new health care system and Trump’s security wall.  Faced with a Congress firmly in the control of the other party, a President may only be able to veto proposed legislation and not see anything from his own agenda carried through.

Prime Ministers have always been actively involved in foreign policy and so this aspect is not new.  In the interwar period Lloyd George practically invented the system of heads of Government meeting in European summits, MacDonald was his own Foreign Minister for a period and Chamberlain was actively involved in the policy of appeasement of Germany.