Prime minister: power in an age of confusion

The UK Prime Minister (PM) is within the UK system of concentration of power both a powerful figure and one that can be circumscribed by political forces that shape the part he or she can play. In the UK’s unwritten constitution there is no formal description of the PM’s role, leaving each individual with scope to carve out an influence within the political context in which they operate.

The current PM, Theresa May, came to power as a result of Cameron’s defeat in the 2016 Referendum. She heads a government that, reflecting the divisions in the referendum, is split between Brexiters and Remainers. She has set a course to exiting the EU, an issue that is likely to consume the government’s energies at least until the proposed exit time of 2019, and has the difficult task of trying to negotiate Brexit and still hold her cabinet and government together. While her style has been very controlling, she is finding it difficult to keep to that style considering the conflicts raging around her.

She thus provides us with a very striking example of both PM power and its limitations. We appear to be going through a period when the PM looks very much weaker, as also happened in 1974-9 when indecisive elections produced phases of minority government.

The role of the Prime Minister in government

The PM sits at the apex of government.

She is by convention the leader of the largest party in Parliament, one who usually won the general election and, usually, commands “the confidence of the House”, which usually mean holding a majority in the House of Commons. She is invited by the Queen to form a government and by convention the Queen will appoint as PM the one who can muster a majority in the House of Commons, the elected chamber of Parliament.

Note that I write “usually” in that what is described has been the “usual” pattern, but with a recent shift to a multi-party situation, it has looked as though it is a lot harder to win an election and obtain an overall majority. This also circumscribes what a PM can do.

The normal pattern, however, is for one party to win a general election under the UK’s First Past the Post electoral system, and for the leader to become PM. However, this is not always the case. A PM could succeed one who has resigned by choice or through a crisis, without an election. Cameron lost the 2016 referendum and on resigning was replaced by May. Blair chose to bow out and was replaced by Brown in 2007. In neither case was there an election. The Conservatives failed to win a majority in 2010 and Cameron as leader of the largest party was charged with forming a government by the Queen and he duly reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government (2010-15).

The PM forms a government by appointing ministers, the most senior of whom will be members of the Cabinet, an institution that has, like the PM, evolved over time since the 18th Century into a body with no formal statutory power but that of convention.

The PM exercises certain prerogative powers on behalf of the monarch, with whom she has weekly “audiences”. The royal prerogative is also something that is undefined. The PM can for example, through the Queen bestow honours on distinguished people, ranging from peerages and knighthoods to an “Order of the British Empire” (OBE).

The power of appointment is an important lever, that of patronage. Thus the PM can reward loyal supporters and recognise past contributions. Appointments to the House of Lords can boost the government’s presence there. The ability to hire and fire, and to manage and manipulate the “payroll” vote of the large number of people within the government, is an important tool in influencing the behaviour of MP’s and peers and ensuring loyalty.

Certain laws have however provided for some of the things a PM can or cannot do. For example, certain laws refer to the PM being First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service. Most importantly the PM can no longer call an election: where the PM could once influence MP’s by the threat of calling an election, she is now subject to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. Laws now specify a process for Parliamentary ratification of treaties. Some matters are still subject to discussion, such as the commitment of forces to combat, although in 2015 forces were committed after a Parliamentary vote. By convention the PM under the royal prerogative has conducted foreign policy, negotiated treaties and overseen security. This arena continues to be controversial at times of crisis, Parliament claiming a role depending on the situation.

The crisis over Brexit has seen Parliament assuming a role in the oversight of agreements with the EU and even whether Britain could leave the EU without one. This was fuelled by a concern that the PM could make a Withdrawal Agreement that a majority in Parliament disagreed with and was acting in ways that undermined what many considered to be a fundamental right of the elective body to consent to major actions of the executive. This conflict has become that has pitched the preogative rights exercised by the PM and her right, through the Leader of the House and the Whipping system, to control Parliamentary business, against the traditional rights of Parliament oversight, scrutiny and consent.

Prime Minister’s power

The power of the Prime Minister can fluctuate over time. At times the PM has appeared as almost Presidential while at others strongly circumscribed by circumstances. Both Thatcher (1979-90) and Blair (1997-2007) were powerful people at the height of their success, while Major (1990-97) , Brown (2007-10) and Cameron (2010-16) were beset by party-political issues and a small majority in Parliament. The lesson can perhaps be that rare ingredient so beloved of political observers, that “politics is the art of the possible”, in this case the combination of forces that can work for or against the office-holder. As Macmillan (1957-63) said, “Events, my dear boy, events”.

The power of the PM rests, as stated above, on an ambiguous but flexible set of arrangements mainly resting on convention. The bottom line is that the PM usually leads a party with a comfortable majority in Parliament’s House of Commons, and derives her power from that support. If successful, for example having recently won a general election, managing well the issues of the time, perhaps doing well in opinion polls, retaining strong support from her Parliamentary party and the party at large in the country, a PM can appear very powerful. Yet lose that support and a PM’s power can quickly ebb away. Thus the Conservatives were ruthless at disposing of Mrs Thatcher once she was no longer successful and, after the Poll Tax riots (1990), seen as toxic. Blair struggled to retain authority after the internal opposition against the Iraq War gained momentum and, under pressure from the Brownite faction, eventually said he was going to step down within a year (2006). Both PM’s had been very successful and were regarded as very powerful.

The current PM, Theresa May illustrates very well the constraints under which a PM can operate at times. She currently lacks a majority, having thrown it away in a misjudged attempt to increase her majority by a snap election in 2017 and has had to rely on voting support from the Northern Irish DUP. She also leads a bitterly divided party. Her cabinet reflects those divisions, her Chancellor Hammond and her Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd, who campaigned for Remain, favouring a “soft” Brexit while certain leading Leavers like Gove, Fox, Graying and Leadsom have argued for a “harder” Brexit. While May’s style is to attempt a strong control over policy-making and demand close adherence to confidentiality, it is well-known what leading figures want and their supporters in the Parliamentary party are very vocal in supporting them. The European Research Group of hard Brexit MP’s led by Jacob Rees Mogg are particularly assertive, and keep pushing towards a less compromising approach in Brexit negotiations.

Thus May struggles to retain the confidence of her party and to look credible in the country at large and with other countries. She is at least fortunate that the Opposition also has its difficulties and her party has held up surprisingly well in the opinion polls. May is perhaps the weakest PM in a long time, but her party cannot agree on a likely successor and she seems to hold what power she has for fear of anything worse.

Ministers and the Cabinet

The Chancellor of the Exchequer in recent years has often been the most influential in government after the PM. People like Brown and Osborne were able to use their control over “the purse strings” of government, particularly the budget, to influence and very often make policy. However, the influence can vary in ways similar to the PM, in such areas as success, support, and credibility. Brown was a powerful influence in the Blair government and was for long seen as a potential successor to him. However, his strength arguably blighted his governments due to the on-going rivalry between the two.

The PM seeks to appoint a cabinet that reflects different strands of opinion in the party and includes those with a strong profile. Those disappointed in not gaining office can otherwise pose a problem to the PM from the backbenchers, especially if they have support. Thus May had to include the major Brexiters in her government and Johnson, a likely leadership rival, may have been given the surprise post of foreign secretary in 2017 since May felt he could be more easily managed there: the PM can often manage foreign policy more than the foreign secretary. In the end this maybe worked since he resigned over opposition to May’s EU draft agreement with the EU and has since lacked support amongst MPs while still being popular with the party in the country.

Other ministers too can build up fiefdoms within government, some with more influence than others depending on their personal and policy profile at any one time.

Such has been the power of the PM today that the Cabinet itself has usually been much less influential as a body. The PM will work more through a range of committees depending on the policy issue, and takes care to get the right balance of ministers on each committee to ensure good representation and progress on policy without problems from individual ministers.

In the unusual circumstances of Brexit, the Cabinet has become much more impactful on Mrs May’s actions, and before any initiative lengthy Cabinet discussions have been necessary, as May has tried to bring her divided cabinet together on an an agreed approach.

Collective responsibility

The key glue that is often used to maintain the unity of a government is the doctrine of collective responsibility. All members of the government are collectively responsible for what it does and in the event of a serious failure all would resign. The doctrine has been used to prevent particular individuals from stepping too far out of line.

However today government is prone to the leaking of policy details for a variety of reasons, both by ministers but also by civil servants and ministerial special advisors. One way this works is where a minister might be opposed to a particular direction, or be in competition with others, and leaks information which can favour their position or harm another point of view. In order to prepare her negotiating position for Brexit, May has tried, with varying success, to exercise a much stricter control on the leaking of information than has been the practice in recent years. Yet since her near-defeat in 2017, leaks by one or other side within the cabinet have been more more common, and we have even seen one side briefing openly against the other, a quite remarkable turn of events.

PM and Parliament

The PM and her government are accountable to Parliament, from where their power ultimately derives. The classic way this is often demonstrated is PM Questions (PMQ’s), a weekly gladiatorial contest with her opposite number from the Opposition, and others who have questions to ask the PM. The event is well-attended, and televised, and often a highly partisan occasion as well as a time to present, explain and defend government policy.

In the past, a PM has resigned when losing a confidence motion of the House of Commons. A well-known example is when Callaghan lost such a motion in 1979 and was forced to call a general election, which he lost to Mrs Thatcher.

In an age when the focus is on personalities and when the PM holds a strong grip over the executive, it is easy to ignore the importance of Parliament. It can be a mistake an over-confident PM makes, to their cost. A key skill of a successful PM is their ability to work through their Whips (in effect party managers in Parliament) to ensure good listening and communication.

When a PM is weaker, the converse can be that Parliament will appear stronger as individuals and groups will use their influence there to exert pressure on policy-making. Since the 2017 election Parliament has become much more assertive, so much so that in December 2017 pro-Remain Conservative backbenchers allied with their Labour counterparts to force an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill such that Parliament would have to consent to the terms of any agreement with the EU and that Britain could not leave the EU without any agreement.

European Council member

The PM is also, until Brexit occurs, formally a member of the European Council and attends regular meetings with other EU heads of government.

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