To what extent has the powers of the Prime Minister grown in recent years?

In recent years, it has been noticed that various Prime ministers have attempted to reduce the amount of formal powers they have, largely due to public and political pressure. Whilst formal powers derived from the Prime Minister’s prerogative have decreased, there has been a growth in prime ministers exercising their use of informal powers that give the PM undefined authority. This was particularly the case in the Blair years when he was accused of manipulating government through the use of informal powers to suit his own interests. However, these powers are subject to the limitations that appear in government at any one time, with each prime minister facing different challenges, such as growing  back bench activism, in Cameron’s case, or decreasing popularity in the case of Brown. 

One use of informal powers that has caused much controversy is the network of unelected political advisors (SPADs) that the prime minister can appoint, which arguably increase the effectiveness of the ‘Downing Street Machine’ and allow the PM to govern effectively. The use of SPADs was questionable, especially during the Blair era, as they were given significant power in the executive, which would often encroach upon the power of ministers and civil servants. During Blair’s terms in office, the heavy reliance and increased powers given to SPADs meant they had access to cabinet meetings and papers (such as Alistair Campbell), and essentially, control over policy making (for example David Miliband heading the policy unit). Unlike civil servants, they are exempt from the requirement to be politically neutral and their main role is to help policy making but with a party line. Blair had a different approach to dealing with SPADs and allowed them to sit in cabinet meetings alongside senior ministers. With a total of 84 SPADs, including spin doctors, Blair  decreased his reliance on ministers. He greatly exercised, and arguably abused, his informal power of appointing political advisors to give him a higher authority and appear more dominant among his ministers in cabinet.

Another way in which prime ministers have increased their informal powers is through their control over the cabinet and the way in which it is run. The various leadership styles of each PM are demonstrated by the way they approach their cabinet and how they battle disputes that occur between ministers. Since the 1950s, the number and duration of cabinet meetings has steadily declined, from about 100 a year to 40 a year, and under Blair and Cameron, they rarely lasted more than one hour. Blair gave himself more power and authority in his cabinet by placing emphasis on bilateralism. This use of a bilateral meetings meant that Blair could easily manipulate conversations between ministers on a one-to-one basis to remove any threat of conflict in cabinet meetings. This form of ‘sofa government’ meant that meetings were not minuted and Blair could use this as an opportunity to make promises he couldn’t keep. He preferred smaller meetings as it was argued a cabinet of 23 was far too large to function effectively and so used the idea of personal meetings to assert authority and make decisions about policy that would work in his favour. He also heavily reduced the length of cabinet meeting and importance of these, allowing him to circumvent Cabinet as the central executive committee. This organisation of cabinet meant the PM appeared more dominant and could achieve what he wanted with little consultation. Prime ministers have considerable scope for managing and controlling the cabinet and the larger cabinet system, enabling them to harness the decision making authority of the cabinet to their own ends.

Since the 1980s, various prime ministers have increased their use of informal powers in the form of foreign policy and the economy.  Although various foreign policy powers come under the royal prerogatives given to the PM, prime ministers such as Thatcher and Blair put emphasis on these areas and consequently demonstrated an increase in the powers available to the prime minister. Blair showed his exercise of these powers through his foreign policy ventures, such as going to war in Kosovo in 1999 and choosing to start a war on Iraq in the mid-2000s. His view was that an increased involvement in foreign policy improved his image in global affairs. Thatcher also followed this use of prerogative in her foreign policy decisions, most famously demonstrated by her invasion of the Falkland Islands. These two prime ministers greatly increased the amount of power they have by choosing a particular area of policy to focus on, and so had complete control over any decision made.

Despite there being an increased emphasis on informal powers, and so arguably the powers of the PM are increasing, many PMs have chosen to reduce or change their prerogative powers. An example of this was Blair’s decision to give up his right to give honors after a scandal that involved the Labour party receiving cash donations in exchange for such a title. A criminal enquiry meant Blair felt it appropriate to give up this right in order to quash such allegations, demonstrating how particular circumstances can force a prime minister to reduce the amount of powers they have. Cameron also gave up his right to call a general election by introducing the Fixed Term Parliament act in 2011. This meant it was no longer in the pm’s power to call or dissolve parliament, and announce the date of the general election. The act provides for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May ever five years and heavily decreasing the ability of the pm to manipulate the result of the vote to achieve another term in office. The introduction of this act was significant in that it meant the prime minister had effectively surrendered a key prerogative power that the prime minister, by convention, exercised on behalf of the crown. The abandonment of prerogative powers by these two prime ministers shows how the amount of formal power given to the PM is decreasing, usually due to a media scandal or other reason that could potentially benefit the PM’s parliamentary position.

Prime ministerial powers have not necessarily increased, as these powers ebb and flow depending on a number of political factors a pm is greeted with at a particular time. These factors could include the personality of the pm, the parliamentary majority, popularity, and in turn the media image, and unity of the party or cabinet. Tony Blair had a massive majority for his time in office and faced limited opposition to bills he wanted to pass. A weak opposition meant Tony Blair had the power to implement whatever he wished, knowing it would get passed in parliament.

The problem of a reduced majority was seen in the Coalition years when David Cameron was forced to amend his manifesto promises to suit the agreement that had been set up between the two parties. Due to a Conservative minority in parliament, many of the things the Conservatives wanted to pass were diluted or blocked by the Liberal Democrats, such as replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights and reducing the overall number of MPs from 650 to 600. The Conservatives had to have Lib Dem support to pass any legislation, and so the coalition, and minority government, acted as a limitation to prime ministerial power. Despite no definitive reduction of formal powers, Cameron found himself with less authority to pursue a programme for government than Blair.

The media can also have a significant effect on the effectiveness of government, with it acting as a limitation to the success of government. Gordon Brown faced repeated ridicule from the media as a result of his inability to follow in Blair’s footsteps. He was made to take responsibility for the economic crash and so from then, lost public support, media support and cabinet support, as his chances to win the 2010 election decreased. Therefore, it is evident that whilst prime ministers have the right to exercise their powers however they wish, in reality this is heavily dependent on the political climate in which they find themselves.

Overall, it could be argued that whilst the formal powers given to the PM through conventions in the UK constitution are decreasing, many prime ministers prefer to strengthen their informal powers that have come about through an ever changing political environment.  Informal powers give room for adjustment and adaption. Britain’s uncodified constitution allows the Prime Minister more flexibility in interpreting his or her role according to the the political environment.

Ilenya Nocivelli

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.