Governing the UK

Prime Minister, Cabinet and the Executive

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The Executive

The executive is a branch of government that is responsible for the implementation of laws and policies made by Parliament. It comprises the political executive (roughly equivalent to the ‘government of the day’) and the official executive, the civil service.

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The Prime Minister

The prime minister is the single most important figure in the UK political system. Traditionally, prime ministers were seen as ‘first amongst equals’ but that is now seriously outdated. The key aspects of the modern role of the prime minister are to make governments, direct government policy, manage the cabinet system, organize government, control Parliament and provide national leadership.

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The Cabinet

The cabinet’s role is to provide formal approval to government policy, help to coordinate policy and the workings of government, resolve high-level disputes that cannot be resolved elsewhere, act as a forum for debate, help to manage the majority party and maintain collective government.

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Ministers and Civil Servants

Ministers are departmental bosses, entrusted (in theory) with the making of policy. Civil servants provide policy advice and carry out government policy; they are meant to be permanent, neutral and anonymous. Recent changes have blurred the distinction between the two.

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Theories of Executive Power

The major theories of executive power are cabinet government, prime ministerial government, presidentialism and the core executive model. None of these models is ‘true’ but each contributes to our general understanding of the workings of executive power.

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Prime Minister's Role

Prime ministers are much more important than their ‘constitutional’ role suggests. Their key source of power lie in their ability to hire and fire, to manage the cabinet, their leadership of the party, the institutional supports now available to them and their direct access to the media.

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Extent of Prime Ministerial Power

The extent of prime ministerial power depends on three important sets of relationships. These are the relationships the prime minister has with the cabinet, individual ministers and government departments; with his or her party and, through it, with Parliament; and with the people, often through the media.

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Constraints on a Prime Minister

Prime ministerial power changes both from prime minister to prime minister and within the career of any single prime minister. There are limits to all the prime minister’s powers. The main constraints on a prime minister are the cabinet (and especially the cabinet’s ‘big beasts’), the party (which can ultimately remove him or her), public opinion and the electorate, the media and the pressure of events.

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