Possible Constraints on a Prime Ministers Power

Possible Constraints on a Prime Ministers Power

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.