To what extent has the power of the Prime Minister increased in recent years?

In the last 50 years of British politics, a series of Prime Ministers have been seen to utilise prime ministerial powers in as increasingly independent and arguably presidential way. However, have the powers of the Prime Minister actually increased, or have a number of recent Prime Ministers simply been more bold in harnessing the powers in place and more smart in managing and tackling the political environment of the United Kingdom? The latter currently seems far more tenable for reasons that will further be discussed.

It is the state of British politics now that personalised leadership is the new norm. Blair and Cameron have in particular shown an adeptness in acting as lone ambassadors for their parties. Being elected when one personally and solely represents the party undoubtedly boosts the mandate of a top-down, presidential style of Government. Recent political campaigns, like Cameron’s, have undoubtedly been more centred on the individual than their party; both he and Blair sought to modernise their party, and in turn became prominent figureheads. It is evident that those party leaders who run a very personal campaign see great success; both Blair and Thatcher saw 3 successful terms with a high majority in the House of Commons. Personalised leadership is then an already and increasingly popular style of leadership amongst the British people, and does grant the Prime Minister with more of a mandate for using greater power on an individual basis.

An increase in the number of special advisers in Downing Street is also a good example for how Prime Ministers are seeing an increase in their power. Blair, famous for his reliance on personal advisers to run his sofa government, introduced the idea of truly presidential-style governance to the British political scene. Frequently special advisors, particularly those such as Alistair Campbell, were seen to be more prominent than many cabinet ministers. These unaccountable and unelected individuals were absolutely core to Blair’s administration and clearly acted for him, and not the cabinet. Thus, the increased usage of special advisors under Blair’s administration shows that prime ministerial power is growing in practicality.

Lastly, the lack of a codified constitution means that the Prime Minister can act with far greater power than perhaps initially conceived. The absence of clear, codified regulations and rules regarding cabinet government allows PMs, again such as Blair, to use cabinet as a political tool and briefing lobby rather than a tool of effective governance. Indeed, matters of economics and foreign policy – prominent fields within UK politics – are by convention still within the hands of the Prime Minister. The more brave and personal a PM is, the greater they can use, or possibly abuse, this power; for example, Blair was able to wage war in Iraq regardless of the opinion of both Parliament and his cabinet. Whilst there is no codified constitution in place, the powers of the Prime Minister are set primarily by vague conventions, and so the practical power of the Prime Minister could quickly grow to the point that any PM sees suitable. The highlighting of a lack of codified rules on governance by Blair’s administration in particular undoubtedly shows the powers of the Prime Minister are growing to a great extent.

On the other hand, the increase in power devolution, such as the 1998 Scotland Act, directly takes power away from the Prime Minister. As a result of the bill, the Scottish Parliament can currently vary tax rates and control regional issues without going through the Westminster Parliament. This devolution was extended to Northern Ireland, London and Wales under Blair as well, who later wrote that he regretted the way in which devolution was carried out. He argued that dispersing power across Britain didn’t give him as much control over cultural issues and regional policy as much as he would have liked; a clear illustration of a Prime Minister’s power decreasing.

Furthermore, the recent Supreme Court ruling on Article 50 consolidates the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, thus decreasing prime ministerial power, as it grants Parliament the vote on issues that directly impact British law making, such as leaving the European Union. Within the Parliamentary vote on whether or not Article 50 should be triggered, MPs also secured a mandate to rebel against their party leader and Theresa May; those MPs who believed they represented their constituents over such a decisive issue could ignore both the PM and their whips. Theresa May is now unable to trigger Article 50 independently, and is thus the undermining of one of her prerogative powers as Prime Minister. The court case and subsequent vote in Parliament is therefore an obvious demonstration of the lessening of prime ministerial powers.

In recent years, far from increasing powers, prime ministers have been relinquishing some of their prerogative powers. The Fixed Terms Parliament Act (2011) in effect disallowed the PM from calling a general election whenever he or she wished, thus arguably removing a very important political tool at their disposal. The same can be said when Blair, known for his ‘presidential style’ who gave up the power to appoint church leaders, appoint judges after the passing of the Constitutional Reform Act (2005) and removing the PM’s role in directly giving honours after the cash for honours scandal.

Finally, with the rapid diversification of the British political system away from a two-party system, both Parliament and the media are becoming more and more diluted by a range of parties; not just the big two. With an increase in political camps, voters are faced with more variety, and so the Prime Minister has to appease single issue parties (such as UKIP) and those parties which pose a poaching threat if an issue arises that could divide the majority party. For example, Cameron called the EU referendum to appeal to potential UKIP converts and to stop internal party divisions that could see a migration of votes to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Political diversity in the British system makes it difficult for an ‘elected dictatorship’ to be a valid style of governance, as movement of the electorate becomes easier and easier and so PMs become more and more pressured to act on the interests of the public and not their own. This, in turn, reduces the power that a Prime Minister can effectively deploy whilst maintaining good levels of support across the electorate.

In conclusion, the powers of the Prime Minister have become increasingly limited in legislation over recent years, but the surge in personalised leadership and presidential government in the UK has caused the electorate to become increasingly accepting of PMs that push the boundaries in the powers they can exercise. This, however, is different to a practical increase in powers that the Prime Minister has access too, and so it can be said with great certainty that in recent years, the power of the Prime Minister has not increased at all, but rather has seen a depression due to legal and social changes in the last 20 years.

Etien Jasonson

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