The Prime Minister and the Cabinet

The power of the prime minister and Cabinet

Where does the power lie? Different theories.

Cabinet government: the idea that power is collective and located in the cabinet. Members run departments and are drawn from Parliament, and all ministers have an equal say in policy decisions, including the PM. This is underpinned by collective responsibility and a sense of solidarity. Under this idea, the PM needs support of cabinet to survive. This is thought to be an outdated explanation of where power lies in the executive.

Prime-ministerial government: an idea that recognises growing power of the PM. This theory arose from the development of the political party, and the growing importance of the party leader. According to this, cabinet government has been replaced, with the PM now at the centre. The PM makes the major decisions and influences all policy areas, and the cabinet provides advice and support to PM (who is not the ‘first among equals’, but more than this).

Core executive model: the idea that both the PM and cabinet exercise influence on policy, but also use their contacts to exert influence, bringing other institutions into play, for example key advisors, committee members, senior officials, outside organisations, peers and so on. Under this theory, who holds power depends on the resources available and outside circumstances. This theory recognises that PM power is constrained.

Presidentialism: the idea that UK PMs have, in effect, become presidents who act like (and have the same influence as) a head of state as well as a head of government. Under this, PMs set their own personal policy agendas, and claim a personal mandate following election success. The media focus is on the PM almost exclusively, especially during election campaigns, which are turned into contests to be the next PM. The increasing number of special advisers personally loyal to the PM has added to this explanation.

Can the PM dominate their cabinet?

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

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

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

  1. 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
  2. There must be a balance of interests and ideas, to avoid alienating sections of the party
  3. Particular groups must be represented, such as females
  4. 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:

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

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

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

Circumstances: these may give the PM power, because:

  1. If the economy is strong, it increases the PM’s authority
  2. If the PM has a large majority in the Commons, they are also strengthened
  3. 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:

  1. A small majority makes the PM’s grip on power much more precarious
  2. 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:

  1. It gives the PM more staff working for them, helping them to control and oversee the policy process
  2. 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:

  1. 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:

  1. PMs are able to speak to and appeal to the public directly through TV and press appearances, giving them more exposure than cabinet colleagues
  2. The media focuses on the PM’s personality and image, giving them a very high public profile compared to their colleagues
  3. 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:

  1. Bad news stories can be blown out of proportion and turned into a crisis
  2. 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