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Are the powers of the UK prime minister now outweighed by the limitations to that power? (40
Since the 1960s there has been a general perception that prime-ministerial power has increased in
the UK. It was Richard Crossman, a Labour minister under Harold Wilson, who first identified the idea
of `prime-ministerial government'. This view was especially reinforced under Margaret Thatcher and
Tony Blair, who were both very dominant prime ministers. In recent years, however, it has become
apparent that there are also great limitations on prime-ministerial power. This essay will examine the
evidence as to whether the limitations are actually growing.
Prime-ministerial power is considerable mainly because the holder of the office has several different
important sources of power. The first is the existence of prerogative powers. These are the arbitrary
powers enjoyed by the monarch which are delegated to the prime minister. They include the power
of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chief foreign policy maker, and the power to appoint
or dismiss government ministers. These powers are especially important because they are not under
the control of Parliament.
A second source of prime-ministerial power is his position as leader of the governing party. This
effectively means that he is chief policy-maker. This is especially true since the role of parties as
policy-making machines has gradually declined. As party leader the prime minister is also leader of his
party in Parliament, so Parliament is also a source of his power. Finally, we can also say today that the
prime minister enjoys the people's mandate from the previous general election. The electorate,
after all, vote for a leader as well as a party.
All this means that a modern prime minister has great powers. Above all he has the power of
patronage. MPs and many peers owe the future of their careers to him and so he can command their
loyalty to him. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher were particularly careful to use patronage as a way
of dominating. Thatcher removed her enemies from cabinet between 1979 and 1983, while Blair
only appointed those who were part of his `New Labour Project'. The modern prime minister is also
seen by the media as a spokesperson for the rest of the government. In fact Thatcher and Blair were
seen as the same thing as the government as a whole. Famously and controversially, Blair was careful
to stay close to Murdoch's media empire to receive favourable coverage. Since Wilson, prime
ministers have also controlled the cabinet, choosing the agenda, controlling the content of meetings
and making deals outside cabinet with powerful ministers so that there was often a `fait accompli'
presented at meetings. Indeed, under Blair cabinet meetings became shorter and less frequent.
We have also recently seen dominant prime ministers with strong personalities and big parliamentary
majorities. Blair was very charismatic and won three big elections. Thatcher was known as the `iron
lady' and won huge victories in 1983 and 1987. They also employed personal advisers to boost their
image and to advise on policy matters. The `Downing Street Machine' has grown considerably and
provided the prime minister with his own `White House' style department.
But there are also a number of limitations on prime-ministerial power. They do, for example, depend
on a working majority in the Commons. Major, Brown and Cameron were not able to rely on such a
majority and this limited them. They also may lose the respect and support of the public and the
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Major had a poor public image and Brown was also disliked after a good start. In extreme
circumstances, too, a prime minister may be removed from office. Callaghan lost a vote of no
confidence in 1979, Thatcher was removed by her own colleagues because she refused to repeal
the poll tax and even Tony Blair was forced out by Brown's supporters. Prime ministers know,
therefore, that they do not have complete freedom to do as they wish.…read more