F852 Government and Politics - The Prime Minister

A brief overview of the prime minister, their role and their powers.

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Development of the role of the prime minister

There was no prime minister (hereafter referred to as PM) until the 18th century; the office emerged because the country needed an individual to manage the team of minister working on behalf of the monarch and the country.

Robert Walpole (1676-1745) became the first PM, accepted by King George I for the following reasons:

  • the king and most MP's trusted him to make the right decisions
  • he was able to get legislation passed in parliament
  • he knew how to manage the House of Commons
  • he could manage the economy
  • he was a good administrator
  • he knew how to manage a team (the ministers)
  • his policies and legislation were in the best interests of the country

Walpole left office in 1742, but by that time the powers of the PM had been recognised and accepted.

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Sources of the prime minister's power

Britain's PMs derive their power from a number of different sources:

  • Royal perogatives - in the past, it was the duty of the monarch to appoint ministers and declare war or sign peace agreements - these powers have now been transferred to the PM
  • Leader of the execuive - as the "first among equals", the prime minister is the first and final decision-maker in the cabinet and in the country
  • Leader of a political party - the PM has enormous power in the creation of party policies and the party manifesto as leader of a political party
  • Emergency powers - An act of parliament may give the prime minister extra powers to handle a crisis situation
  • Patronage - the PM has the power to make a wide range of appointments, including ministers, life peers, judges and diplomats. This means it is easy for the PM to be surrounded by allies and supporters.
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Powers of the prime minister

  • Ministers - the PM can choose his or her cabinet colleagues: appointing supporters and freezing out opponents
  • Cabinet committees - some committees make key decisions and frame government policy
  • Other appointments - the PM has considerable influence over the appointment of individuals to important posts and also has a major input into the selection of senior military commanders, bishops and even the governors of the BBC
  • Government agenda - PMs have pressed their own agendas, such as John Major's Citizens' Charter and Gordon Brown's decision to prioritise improvements in the NHS
  • Civil service -  Margaret Thatcher started the trend of getting involved in the appointment of senior civil servants
  • Parliament - a PM usually has a majority in the House of Commons, so can get legislation passed
  • Media - control over the party and minsters means that the PM can ensure that a united front is offered to the media.
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Limits on the prime minister's powers

  • The Conservative Party and MPs rejected Margaret Thatcher in 1990, ending her premiership
  • John Major, her successor, failed to get legislation through the House of Commons, due to lack of MP support
  • Between 1997 and 2007 however, Tony Blair recieved high levels of party support
  • Public opinion forced the Tories to abolish the Poll Tax
  • Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would not finally decide on the euro because they knew that public opinion was against it
  • James Callaghan was removed in 1979 after a vote in the House of Commons
  • Margaret Thatcher was nearly removed in 1986 over the "Westlands Affair"
  • John Major's European policy was curtailed due to cabinet opposition.
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Margaret Thatcher as prime minister (1979-90)

  • Thatcher was a key Conservative PMand the first female PM
  • She made far less use of the cabinet than previous PMs, preferring to focus on decision-making in cabinet committees or meetings between heads of departments
  • She used advisers, rather than depending on cabinet colleagues for advice
  • Opponents in the cabinet during her first term (1979083) were gradually sidelined and eventually removed
  • Thatcher won three elections, and was not averse to removing opposition; she abolished the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Councils, as they had opposed her on several occasions
  • By 1990, however, she had few true allies left in the cabinet
  • John Major, as chancellor of the exchequer, persuaded Thatcher to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a policy he favoured but she opposed
  • She had ignored the concerns of the ministers and at the precise time she was at her weakest, they struck and removed her from power.
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John Major as prime minister (1990-97)

  • John Major took over from Thatcher in 1990, part-way through the Conservative government of 1987-92
  • He was prepared to return to a cabinet government, which Thatcher had dismissed
  • Compared to Thatcher, however, he was seen as weak, indecisive, less dominating and a much less successful leader, with a lack of personality and charisma
  • Major's principal problem was that he consistently failed to put across a clear vision and never set a political agenda
  • This meant he was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism by currency specualtors, costing Britain £6 billion
  • The MPs, the media and much of the nation were against him, undermining further his already weak poisition
  • In the end, with the economy strong in 1997, he faced an election at the time when the opinion polls showed a huge Labour lead, a very popular, young and vibrant Tony Blair
  • After defeat at the polls, Major resigned as Party leader.
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Tony Blair as prime minister (1997-2007)

  • Tony Blair's Labour Party swept to power in May 1997, with a majority of 179 seats
  • Blair was the youngest PM since 1812, and was a dominant leader who adopted a presidential style from the outset
  • During the first two governments Blair had a considerable majority in the House of Commons
  • Backbenchers revolted after 2001, notable over Iraq, foundation hospitals and tuition fees
  • His popularity took a dip after 2005; he had a reduced majority and announced his intention to step down during the third term
  • 1997 - Bank of England given freedom to set interest rates, Scottishand Welsh voters back devolution in referendum, first rebellion in Commons by 47 MPs over benefit cuts
  • 1998 - Good Friday Agreement over devolved N. Ireland, ASBOs come into force, Human Rights Act passed, Mandelson resigns
  • 1999 - National minimum wage introduced, Scottish parliament opens, hereditary peers reduced to 92
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Tony Blair as prime minister (1997-2007) (continue

  • 2000 - Livingstone elected as Mayor of London, Freedom of Information Act passed
  • 2001 - Labour wins second victory with majority of 166, Britain begins air-strikes on Afghanistan
  • 2002 - Transport Minister resigns, fox-hunting banned, Britain resumes direct rule over N. Ireland, Education Secretary resigns
  • 2003 - Leader of the Commons resigns, Parliament approves invasion of Iraq and war begins, Health Secretary resigns, David Kelly, critic of Iraq dossier, found dead, Director of Communications resigns
  • 2004 - 72 Labour MPs revolt over university fees, Hunting Act passed, Home Secretary resigns
  • 2005 - Blair becomes longest-serving Labour PM, Labour wins third victory with a majority of 66, Blair suffers first defeat in Commons over Terrorism Bill
  • 2006 - Police begin "loans for peerages" investigation, Home Secretary sacked, MPs demand time for Blair's departure from office
  • 2007 - Blair questioned by police over Iraq, Labour lose control of Scotland to SNP, devolved government restored to Northern Ireland.
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Gordon Brown as prime minister (2007-2010)

  • Blair and Brown had obviously agreed that Brown would take over from Blair at some point
  • At the very start, Brown had to deal with failed terrorist attacks on Glasgow and London, a new Foot and Mouth outbreak, and widespread flooding across England
  • Brown quickly emerged as calm, poised, experienced and decisive
  • Brown lost out to the David Cameron's coalition government following the hung parliament after the 2010 general election.
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Cabinet committees

In theory, the role of the cabinet is to:

  • consider major decisions, even if the policy was created elsewhere
  • assist the coordination of government activities
  • endorse government policy
  • manage crises and emergencies
  • control the prime minister or radical ministers
  • sort out disuputes between ministers
  • set the government's agenda for parliament
  • act as a link between the legislature, the judiciary and the party

There are two different types of committees:

  • standing committes - long-term committees, which deal with a specific area of government business
  • ad hoc committees - set up to deal with a specific short-term issue, such as the reform of the House of Lords
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