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How is the power of the British Prime Minister changing?
The ‘presidentialization thesis’ claims that the power of the British Prime Minister is changing and increasing.
They claim 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.
It is also true that the way power is exercised also varies with circumstances and with the character of the holder of the office.
Factors increasing the power of the Prime Minister
An international role
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 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.
Their own staff
Prime Ministers from Harold 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. Tony Blair also created a unit to look at whether policies were being carried out.
Special advisers and government departments
There has been a growth of special advisers loyal to the Prime Minister.
They can help to exert authority over other Departments. Again under Tony Blair, a team of press officers were created 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. As long as the relationship between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister is a good one, this can enhance the Prime Minister’s power.
24 hour news cycle
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. There is a lot of media attention on them.
This means that the success of the party is more dependent on the success of the leader. So, any disloyalty which undermines the Prime Minister can affect party support.
Party ideologies began to fade in significance as a factor with voters until the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. This has led to a resurgence of ideology as a power factor for the Prime Minister.
Factors decreasing the power of the Prime Minister
Key areas of policy such as health and education are now devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Governments. This means 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.
Up until 2019, many areas of policy were decided by negotiation in Europe with Ministers taking the lead rather than the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister negotiated major issues, such as treaty changes, with other European Heads of Government but could not be certain to get what he or she wanted.
The UK’s departure from the European Union will be either an opportunity to assert power or a failure if new relationships can not be forged properly. This will be reliant on the skills and personality of the Prime Minister.
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
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 now need a vote in Parliament.
Parliament’s involvement in foreign policy
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, David Cameron’s defeat on a vote on British military intervention in Syria is now establishing that Parliamentary approval is increasingly needed in these instances.
Scrutiny of appointments
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.
A confident House of Lords
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.
This has been caused by the gradual increase in the number of peers with expertise and the removal of almost all hereditary peers.
Negative media attention
The relationship with the media can be good for a Prime Minister but also bad. Debates, live interviews, press conferences can all go well and wrong.
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.
Media is now in the hands of almost anybody. A live video at an event can pick up an angry facial expression after a polished smiling interview or a ‘private’ conversation can be lipread and transcribed. These can be uploaded onto social media and shared over and over again. These clips can also become national news.