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How does the Prime Minister control Parliament?     

The Government has to be able to get its legislation through Parliament and if a motion of confidence goes against the Government then they have to resign. Given the partisan nature of Westminster and media attention on it, a Government defeat, even on a clause in a bill, is portrayed as Government weakness.  The Prime Minister has a number of means to keep control of Parliament:-

a)     Since the early part of the 19th century, the Executive has been able to control the Parliamentary timetable and decide what gets debated and voted on each day.  It is accepted that Government business has priority and the Government has always had the means to limit debate so that Government business cannot be delayed by MPs.  The current means is by a Programme Motion by which the time spent on each stage of a Bill is controlled.  More time has been allocated since 1997 on backbench business but this cannot lead to a vote that binds the Government.

b)     Party loyalty and the Whipping system ensure that the Prime Minister can win almost every vote.  MPs are chosen by local political parties and generally have a record of party activity and so loyalty tends to be strong.  A group of MPs of the majority party act as Government Whips whose job it is to ensure that backbench MPs from the Government Party vote for it in every instance. Whips are assigned to a group of MPs from a particular region and explain what the Government is planning to do and get feedback on what MPs think.  The Chief Whip is a member of the Cabinet and will meet regularly with the Prime Minister to give backbench MPs’ views and warn of any impending rebellions.

c)     Factors such as the Prime Minister’s popularity in the country and his or her success in winning elections, and his or her performance in the media and on the world stage will all help keep control over their backbench MPs.  A good performance by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s Questions and in key Parliamentary debates will also enhance his or her prestige in Parliament. The Prime Minister picks an MP to be their Parliamentary Private Secretary whose job it is to talk to other Government MPs about how well the Prime Minister is doing.  

d)     The Prime Minister is also the Party Leader and constituency parties may expect their MP to be loyal to the Prime Minister. There are meetings of the Parliamentary Party at which the Prime Minister will put the Government’s case and answer questions and so a good performance here is important and loyal MPs will look to ask the right questions to help make this happen.

e)     The Prime Minister has considerable influence with individual Government MPs. Appointment to a Ministerial position depends on the Prime Minister, often on the recommendation of the Chief Whip for junior positions, and so the Prime Minister has powers of patronage.  Prime Ministers in a difficult position may decide to spend more time at Westminster talking to backbench MPs and, if MPs are thinking of rebelling in a close vote, call them in for a one-to one discussion to persuade them to support the Government.


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