AS Government & Politics Unit:2, Topic:3 (The core executive)

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Core Executive

  • R. A. W. Rhodes - "act as final arbiters of conflict between different parts of the gov't machine" 
  • Office of PM - largely based on convention. 
  • Styles of political leadership based on "events, dear boy, events" - Macmillan 
  • Robert Peel seen as the first modern PM, Robert Walpole official first PM 
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Sources of Prime Ministerial Power

  • Formal powers - under royal prerogative - now exercised by PM not Monarch, e.g. declare war, sign treaties, control civil service 
  • Emerged through convention - by convention that citizens, party, parl., cabinet and key officials have to submit themselves to the PM authority - to a greater or lesser extent regarding convention 
  • PM's role as leader of maj. party in Commons - power and authority rests upon confidence of Commons - which in a maj. gov't is in turn dependent on the confidence +support of those sitting on his/her benches
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Roles of PM

  • 1. Chief executive 
  • 2. Chief legislator 
  • 3. Chief diplomat 
  • 4. Public relations chief 
  • 5. Party chief 
  • 6. Head of both foreign and domestic affairs

Absense of a codified constitution formally detailing his/her powers. Commentators have therefore formulated their own lists. 

"Elective dictatorship" - former Cons. Minister Lord Hailsham 1976 (increasing exec. dom.) 

Last PMs:

  • 1. Cameron 
  • 2. Brown
  • 3. Blair
  • 4. Major
  • 5. Thatcher
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Powers of PM

  • Powers of patronage - (IMP.) - "de facto chief executive" - most significant is the power to appoint and dismiss ministers at cabinet level and below - Thatcher removed 'wets' and appointed Cecil to support her and her 'drys' 
  • Powers over cabinet, gov't + civil service - e.g. structure and composition of the Cabinet - first coalition cabinet - 16 Cons and 5 LDs 
  • Powers over Parl. - Can tailor all discussion to suit PM's party - domination. - can rely on a degree of party loyalty, whips importance too. PM can even threaten the queen to dissolve Parl. as a means of forcing rebels from their party into line. - Tactic adopted by J. Major over some votes reglating to the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and 1994. 
  • Power over the agenda - agenda setting and policy-making - incumbent has a key role. - largely responsible for the Queen's speech 
  • Powers on world stage - rooted in the prerogative powers to make war and conclude treaties, but also been enhanced by the rise of mass media powers - not seen as high as the President of the USA though 
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Limits on PM power

  • Cabinet - poor cabinet appointments can limit power. Some people demand inclusion in the Cabient - e.g. William Hague 2010. Or sometimes PM can use people for an ideological balance - e.g. John Prescott 199, Ken Clarke 2010. Or as a reward - e.g.George Osborne 2010
  • If PM leaves out people they can become powerful enemies on the backbenches - e.g. Michael Heseltine under Thatcher or Robin Cook/Clare Short under Blair 
  • Abuse of PM's powers - bring criticism e.g. Mo Mowlam "control freakery" of Blair, threats of resignation e.g. G. Howe and N. Lawson (1989). PMs can face difficulties if their ideas fail, e.g. Thatcher - Poll Tax, Balir over Iraq 
  • Parl. - can cause embarrassment. can remove w/ aVoNC - e.g. Callaghan 1979, or attempt on Major 1993 - defeated 
  • Party - Backbench confidence, e.g. Thatcher - challenge from Heseltine in 1990 - resignation. Blair also had massive backbench rebellions 
  • Public opinion - PM accountable to the public - e.g. opinion poll results 
  • Own abilities/circumstances - 1. Majority?, 2. Economy? 3. Coalition ... (main factors) "The office of the PM is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it" - Asquith. 
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  • Bagehot - "efficient secret" of Brit. Pol. system in C19. 
  • PM controls the cabinet with the powers of patronage 
  • around 23 paid members usually. 
  • CABINET COMMITTEES - chaired by either PM or other snr. cabinet mmbers. Committees fall under different categories, - domestic/home affairs, foreign and defence, and economic. 
  • FULL cabinet increasingly seen as a 'rubber-stamping' body. 
  • CABINET OFFICE - (CO) - key player in coordinating the activities of gov't. Strengthened by Labour in 2001 - office compromised of 2,000 staff, also physical centralisation of the CO, relocated to new offices in Downing Street. 
  • - (other) - 1990 Thatcher forced to resign after losing support of her cabinet colleagues 
  • COLLETIVE RESPONSIBILITY - Collective decision making body - Lab. PM Harold Wilson suspended this during referendum campaign on continued membership of EC 1975. 
  • - Undermined by bilaterals 
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Roles and functions of cabinet/cabinet ministers

  • Doctrine of collective responsibility 
  • Decision-making - "buckle" joining the exec. and the leg. - Bagehot, but undermined by increased use of bilaterals - key decisions being taken elsewhere, e.g. decisions over Millennium Dome 1997
  • Coordinating departments - Role in coordinating the activities of gov't departments. Decision-making role of cabinet has diminished somewhat  this remains 
  • Forward planning - Addressing porblems arising from policy and/or events. Provides 'talking shop' where broad direction of a polocy can be re-focused. Can also raise genuine concerns and deal with unexpected events 
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Changes under Blair

  • Reduced cabinet meetings to a single, 45 minute session each week. - preferred bilateral meetings elsewhere. Mo Mowlam and others used the term 'sofa government'. 
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Different models of exec. control

  • Cabinet gov't - PM merely 'primus inter pares', decision-making body - collective respons. decline of this type of gov't! 
  • Prime Ministerial cliques/'kitchen cabinet' - Thatcher+Blair, - cabinet is merely a rubber stamp 
  • Departmentalised gov't - Ministers accountable for their decisions - gov't departments have control over their own areas - ministers act with a degree of autonomy 
  • Differentiated/segmented decisions - degree of prime ministerial dominance varies in different polocy areas  - other areas other responsibilities
  • Prime Ministerial gov't - "elective dictatorship". de facto president - Balir and Thatcher had such large majorities - could pass most legislation - even radical 
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Prime ministerial or presidential power?

President - 

Lots of power, lots of checks 

PM - 

Considerable power, few real checks 

President of USA has more foreign power, prime minister has great domestic policy scope 

Yet more of a side issue - as not to do with their actual rooted powers - more how they use them 

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Types of leadership

  • SPATIAL LEADERSHIP - developed by M. Foley - Blair is an example, create visible difference between PM and machines of gov't 
  • CULT OF THE OUTSIDER - characterising themselves as 'outsiders' fighting against formal structures 
  • PUBLIC LEADERSHIP - Sought to appeal directly to the public through social media....
  • PERSONAL FACTOR - 'expanded personalities' 
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Organisation of gov't departments

  • Ministers -> Junior Ministers -> Parliamentary Private Secretaries 
  • Each gov't department headed by a secretary of state (minsiters)
  • E.g.s of ministers - Thresa May (home secretary), Michael Gove (Education Secretary) 
  • COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY - stand by decisions publically made within cabinet. Those who are not prepared to do this are expected to resign - e.g. Robin Cook Iraq 2003. 
  • INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY - personal respon. e.g. Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington's resignation in the wake of the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands in 1981 
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Civil Service

  • Administrative or bureaucratic arm of government - top four grades within the snr vicil service (c. 1,000 staff) have trad. had greatest input into policy 
  • CIVIL SERVICE REFORM (1979-2005) -
  • Been criticised for being ineffiecient and obstructive - been affected by two key developments: 
  • 1. the 'hiving-off' of many responsibilities to semi-autonomous agencies - called Next Steps agencies (Thatcher) 
  • 2. Rise of special advisers - (spin-doctors) 
  • Some say these changes have resulted in politicisation of the service 
  • Fulton Report (1968) - criticised the civil service's amateurish approach, although full proposals never fully implemented - service underwent major changes betwen 1979-1990. 
  • Derek Rayner's Efficiency Unit - led to the Financial Management Initiative (FMI) - sought to introduce a more business-like culture to the service. 
  • Staff numbers fell from 750,000 (1979) to 600,000 (1990) 
  • The Next Steps Programme - from 1988 resulted in a process of agencification. By 1990 75% of all civil servants were employed by such agencies. John Major's Citizen's Charter 1991 emphasised the import. of quality in pub. services - need for greater forward planning - IMPACT: some civil servants becoming publicly known and identified as being responsible for the execution of policy (e.g. Head of Child Support Agency) 1990-12agencies, 2005-130 ! 
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Characteristics and roles of civil service

  • IMPARTIALITY - Theory: civil servants should not be asked to perform political functions Practice: undermined by rise of special advisers since 1979 
  • ANONYMITY - Theory: Should not be named publically Practice: Public criticism of named civil servants over policy undermined this theory - e.g. over Westland affair in 1986 - and by rise of agencies where civil servants seem responsible not ministers (e.g. Prison Service) 
  • PERMANENCE - Theory: Should remain in office even following a change in gov't Practice: undermined by fixed-term contracts 

CONFIDENTIALITY? - some say this should be added as a fourth principle - leaks and other events have served to undermine this - Sarah Tisdall sentences to 6 months' imprisonment in 1983 for leaking details of the arrival of cruise missiles at Greenham Common 

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Role of the civil service

  • Research 
  • Policy advice
  • Policy execution 
  • Departmental administration 
  • Ensuring continuity and a smooth transition between gov'ts 


  • undermine the civil service 
  • Roles - 1. Make the gov't less reliant on the work of the civil service, and 2. to help the PM keep up-to-date with often far better staffed and resourced gov't departments 
  • 5 SA in 1990 - 108 in 2003 
  • 'Spin doctors' - politicalisation of civil service 
  • Lots of scanals including spin doctors - e.g. Jo Moore - Stephen Byers' media adviser who on 9/11 said it was a "good day to bury bad news" 2002 departure 
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Relationship between ministers and civil servants

  • 1. Formal constitutional model - Civil servants serve ministers, providing information but preserving impartiality, and therefore anonymity and permanence 
  • 2. Adversarial model - Minsiters and civil servants = struggle for power. Civil service has its own agenda - seeks to obstruct gov't 
  • 3. Village life in the Whitehall community model - Ministers within the department provide the vision and drive - civil servants fill in the detail
  • 4. Bureaucratic expansionism model - Civil servants serve their own interests by creating bureaucratic empires that are financially inefficient and get in the way of effective gov't 

Theoretical working of the civil service - "Ministers decide, servants advise"

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Servants or masters?


  • control information given to ministers 
  • focused on one area (ministers usually have many commitments e.g. John Prescott) 
  • Larger network 
  • More experience and knowledge on department


  • Final power 
  • Use of special advisers 

'Yes Minister' model - 

Civil service essentially overpowered and controlled the minister - many thought this satirical show was all too realistic 

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