Power of the PM & Cabinet

Power of the PM & Cabinet

Patronage: the ability to hire and fire/make appointments. The PM is strengthened by this because:

  • They can promote loyal colleagues and supporters, making the cabinet more likely to support them
  • The PM in effect controls the careers of ministers, which should ensure their loyalty

The PM’s power is restricted in this area, because:

  • Ministers must come from the Commons or Lords, so there is a limited number of people to choose from/ Similarly, ministers will come from the majority party
  • There must be a balance of interests and ideas, to avoid alienating sections of the party
  • Particular groups must be represented, such as females
  • It may be better to have opponents in the cabinet, so they are bound by collective responsibility

Cabinet management: the ability to manage the cabinet strengthens the PM because:

  • They control how often and how long the cabinet meets for, and sets the agenda
  • They control appointments to cabinet committees and chair the most important ones
  • The number of cabinet meetings and their duration has declined with recent PMs
  • Often meetings are just used for formal business, without meaningful discussion or debate

The PM’s power may be restricted in this area, because:

  • If the PM is not successful, the cabinet will not support them
  • Cabinet resignations, especially senior ones, can damage the authority of the PM

Circumstances: these may give the PM power, because:

  • If the economy is strong, it increases the PM’s authority
  • If the PM has a large majority in the Commons, they are also strengthened
  • Events such as the Falklands War work in favour of a PM, if they are successful

The PM’s power may be restricted by these, because:

  • A small majority makes the PM’s grip on power much more precarious
  • Negative events or economic problems can damage the PM’s standing, so they have to work in a more consensual way with the cabinet

Prime Minister’s and Cabinet Office: these institutions give power to the PM, because:

  • It gives the PM more staff working for them, helping them to control and oversee the policy process
  • The use of special advisers has grown in recent years (John Major had 8, Tony Blair 50)- these advisers are personally loyal to the PM, rather than the government or cabinet

The PM’s power may be restricted in this area, because:

  • The bodies and advisers available to the PM are considerably less than those available to the US President (for example)

Media access: the growing role of the media has strengthened PM power, because:

  • PMs are able to speak to and appeal to the public directly through TV and press appearances, giving them more exposure than cabinet colleagues
  • The media focuses on the PM’s personality and image, giving them a very high public profile compared to their colleagues
  • PMs use the media to control the flow of information, through ‘spin doctors’- advisors who present information in a biased or one-sided way, so as to influence public opinion. If media such as newspapers are supportive of a PM, this can help their standing

The PM’s power may be undermined or restricted by the media, because:

  • Bad news stories can be blown out of proportion and turned into a crisis
  • The emphasis on spin can be counter-productive- it has undermined faith in politicians and damaged their reputation- the criticism is that politicians’ media influences are too closely controlled, so authenticity is lost

Constraints on PM

The Cabinet: this can be a key constraint on the power of a PM. The PM has to take into account the power and popularity of senior cabinet ministers. For example, during Tony Blair’s premiership, Gordon Brown wielded considerable power as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Blair was unable to fire Brown, and needed to consider his reaction and consult with him on key decisions. Margaret Thatcher had lost the support of her cabinet colleagues by 1990, who saw her as having become too inflexible regarding unpopular policies such as the poll tax. Deputy PM Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech was the catalyst for a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine (which Thatcher did not survive). Cabinets do not usually act against the PM, as the success of both is linked- if the PM falls, the cabinet also falls.

The party: if a party does not have faith in and support a PM, they will not survive. This was seen in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher failed to secure enough votes to win the leadership contest. Backbenchers had grown increasingly dissatisfied with her performance and she was beginning to be viewed as a liability. Similarly, John Major clashed with his party over issues such as Europe, even going as far as to resign (and then be re-elected leader) in 1995. Tony Blair’s authority over the Labour Party was weakened by his support for the Iraq War in 2003, although this in itself did not cause his downfall.

Electorate: if a PM’s popularity declines amongst the public, their authority is weakened. This is because parties will not support a PM if they don’t believe they can deliver electoral success. For example, Gordon Brown dithered over whether to call a snap election after becoming PM in 2007, eventually backing out of it. This weakened his stature and authority, which was further dented by the financial crisis of 2008.

Media: how the media portrays the PM, and how they present themselves, is seen as a key component in their success. Tony Blair enjoyed a very positive media image in the early years of his leadership, but this was damaged by the Iraq War and the reasons for it. The media could be argued to be becoming more critical and difficult to manage generally. Gordon Brown had a poor media image, lacking the charisma and presentational polish of Blair, and suffered in the media as a result. Increasingly hyped media coverage of policies results in the exaggeration of events such as cabinet disagreements, making the PM more vulnerable to media criticism.

Events: PMs have little or no control over major event which may happen during their leadership, and these events can be positive (for example Thatcher’s popularity boost following the Falklands War in 1982), or can have a significant negative impact. For example, John Major’s premiership was undermined by the collapse in the value of the pound on ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992. Similarly, and perhaps unfairly, Brown’s reputation was damaged by the fact that the 2008 financial crisis took place during his government. The problem of unexpected events is magnified by the fact that the PM today seemingly has to have control over every aspect of government decision-making, and therefore is given responsibility for anything that happens in any policy area, even if in reality they have little knowledge or influence on what happens. Surrounding themselves with loyal special advisers, who may tell the PM only what they want to hear, may also make it difficult for them to react appropriately to events (for example, the last years of Thatcher).

Coalition: the advent of coalition government in 2010 had an impact on the role of the PM (David Cameron). In some ways, Cameron’s power was strengthened by coalition government. The coalition gave the prime minister and his government a solid majority in the House of Commons, and government did not lose a major vote in the Commons, meaning Cameron could be sure that his legislation would be passed. Also, once policies were agreed by the coalition partners, they had additional authority as they were supported by two parties and so represented a consensus view. Similar to this, the PM’s authority could be said to have been strengthened as the two parties together were elected by a majority of the electorate, and the possible threat of the government collapsing arguably strengthened the ability of the prime minister to maintain coalition discipline.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the coalition restricted Cameron’s power in many ways. Policy had to be cleared with coalition partners and this caused problems on occasion when there was disagreement between the parties. Cameron claimed to have kept a ‘little black book’ of all of the policies he wanted to enact that had been blocked by the Lib Dems. He was more vulnerable to dissidence both within his own party and within his coalition partner, because it was more difficult to satisfy the various factions in the Conservative and Lib Dem parties. There was increased activity and activism by the House of Lords as the government’s mandate was questionable, therefore Cameron was more closely scrutinised. His powers of patronage were limited because he could not appoint all cabinet members himself- Nick Clegg chose Lib Dem ministers, and the balance of Conservative and Lib Dem ministers needed to remain the same. It could also be argued that the fixed term rule was a unique product of coalition government and took away one of his discretionary powers.