Dictating Events & Determining Policy

Margaret Thatcher(1979-1990)

Examples of control:

Thatcher was perhaps the first PM to act like a president. She made policy ‘on the hoof’ without much discussion- she was even accused treating her cabinet with a lack of respect. She reduced number and duration of cabinet meetings, and portrayed herself as the dominant character within her party (her image was displayed at Tory party meetings). She clashed with party members more wedded to One Nation conservative principles (dubbed the ‘wets’), but was able to successfully reduce their influence in the party (in favour of her allies, the ‘dries’). Events often worked in her favour- the victory in the Falklands War greatly strengthened her popularity and authority. She had something of a mixed media image, however. Some in the press praised her dominance, conviction and control, whereas others saw her as inflexible and uncaring.

Examples of lack of control:

Thatcher’s authority and control started to weaken towards the end of her premiership. Perhaps this was because she had been in power for so long (11 years) and had started to see herself as invincible. This was demonstrated by her attempt to introduce the poll tax- a council tax that was calculated according to the number of people living in a property, rather than how large or valuable the property was. Many Conservatives advised her against introducing this, fearing that it would be very unpopular, but Thatcher refused to listen and pressed ahead with the policy in the face of large protests against it. As a result, her popularity declined and her party lost faith in her ability to deliver electoral success. The resignation of her previously loyal deputy prime minister Geoffrey Howe (over this issue of being undermined over discussions over Europe) was the trigger for Michael Heseltine to launch a leadership challenge. In the ensuing leadership contest, Thatcher failed to win enough support to carry on as leader and subsequently resigned. This shows how, by the end, she was no longer in control of her cabinet or party, so had to step down.

John Major(1990-1997)

Examples of control:

Major acted decisively to remove the poll tax when he became leader, and took a much less confrontational stance than Thatcher had, which won him the initial support of the party. His support was evidenced by his unexpected general election victory in 1992. He moved back towards more inclusive, cabinet-style government with meaningful discussion between ministers, which again won him support. He also had success in moving towards a peace deal in Northern Ireland. The 1993 Downing Street Declaration ruled out the idea of a united Ireland (so satisfying unionists) whilst being respectful and considerate towards the wishes of republicans.

Examples of lack of control:

On ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992, the value of the pound collapsed, destroying Major’s economic credibility and leading to economic problems arising from the raising of interest rates. Although the economy had recovered by 1997, Major received no credit for this from the public. He also struggled to control his party over the issue of Europe (particularly the Maastricht Treaty, which was opposed by his Eurosceptic MPs). His party and cabinet were deeply divided over the issue, and it contributed to the impression of him as a weak leader. Major even stood down as leader in 1995, and was re-elected, but this failed to have the desired effect of strengthening his authority. Also his less adversarial style was welcomed at first, this became a source of weakness, as his colleagues did not have the respect (and perhaps, the fear) of him that Thatcher had commanded. He also suffered in the media as a result, being nicknamed ‘the grey man’, who was uncharismatic and weak. His heavy defeat in the 1997 election was a culmination of all of these factors.

Tony Blair(1997-2007)

Examples of control:

Tony Blair became PM in 1997, and, in contrast to Major, closely controlled his party members and its media image, through the extensive use of ‘spin’ (spin doctor Alastair Campbell was a key figure in Blair’s government). When he came to power, he had a strong media image and was overwhelmingly popular with the public, who had grown tired of 18 years of Conservative rule. The economy was strong, and remained so until after he left office, so strengthening his economic credibility. Blair extended his control over the cabinet, reducing the time he met and discussed policy with them. Instead, he relied more on hand-picked special advisers and informal meetings with key colleagues to formulate policy (dubbed ‘sofa government’). This allowed him to make decisions effectively bypassing the cabinet, so increasing his control. A number of policies were successfully implemented, partly due to the large majorities Blair always enjoyed in government. For example, the House of Lords was partially reformed and devolved governments were introduced in Scotland and Wales. Perhaps Blair’s biggest success with the Good Friday Agreement (1998), a continuation of Major’s efforts to make peace in Northern Ireland. A Northern Ireland Assembly was created, with the provision that power would be shared between unionists and republicans, so satisfying both sides. Other successes included the introduction of a minimum wage and civil partnerships for same-sex couples. He was able to lead support of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, despite some opposition.

Examples of lack of control:

Blair’s biggest restriction was the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. It was rumoured that the two had made a deal whereby Blair would serve as PM, then hand over to Brown at some point in the future, in return for Brown not opposing Blair in the 1994 Labour leadership election. Brown knew that he would not be sacked by Blair, and built up a large power base in the Treasury. Blair had to take Brown into consideration when making policy, and did not take the UK into the European single currency (as he had wished), as this was blocked by Brown. To keep Brown on side, Blair announced that he would not fight another election after 2005- this damaged his authority, as speculation began over when he would step down. The Iraq War was a very damaging event for Blair personally. The evidence used to justify the war was later found to have been exaggerated (although Blair may not have known this at the time), and there had been no proper plan as to what would happen once the regime had been toppled. As a result, Blair’s popularity plummeted (along with much of his authority), and his legacy is dominated by his perceived failures over Iraq. He eventually stood down in 2007, and, in contrast to his early years in government, continues to have a rather negative public image.

‘Prime Ministers can successfully control the political agenda.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. (25 marks - three arguments for and against)
Your answer should include: Falklands / Northern / Ireland / Good / Friday / Poll / Tax / Authority / Europe / Black / Wednesday / Iraq / Brown

Is the Prime Minister Now Effectively a President?

Arguments that the UK PM is now effectively a president include:

  • The media concentrate more on the PM as government spokesperson
  • The greater concentration on presentation of policy
  • The greater importance of the ‘presidential’ role in terms of foreign policy, military issues, global conferences and so on
  • The growth of the Downing Street ‘machine’, looking increasingly like an ‘executive office of the president’
  • Spatial leadership issues- the PM developing a personal policy agenda, separate from their parties
  • The increased use of special advisers personally loyal to the PM
  • The personality of some prime ministers, notably Blair, Cameron

Arguments that the UK PM is not effectively a president include:

  • Prime ministers are not heads of state constitutionally
  • They are limited by party, cabinet and parliament- it is much easier for them to be removed than it is for a president
  • PMs can be removed from office in mid-term, for example Thatcher
  • It is very much an issue of the individual’s ‘style’- the PM may act like a president, but that does not make them one constitutionally
  • Events and other factors cause variations in dominance- certain PMs may be more presidential than others