Government and Politics AS

Prime Minister, Cabinet and Executive

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Role of the PM

Bagehot: primus inter pares- first among equals Modern role:

Making governments: appoints all other members of the government and power to ‘hire or fire’ extends to cabinet and other ministers.                                                                                                              

Directing governments: Central figure in the core executive, and he sets the overall direction of government policy and defines its strategic goals. Can interfere in any aspect of policy.                 Managing the cabinet system: Chairs cabinet meetings, determines their number and length, and sets up staffs cabinet committees.                                                                                                                                   Organizing government: Responsible for the structure and organization of government. This involves setting up, reorganizing and abolishing government departments, as well as being responsible for the civil service                                                                                                                                              Controlling Parliament: Leader of the largest party in the H of C, the PM effectively controls the lower chamber and through it, Parliament itself                                                                                            

Providing national leadership: Authority is largely based on being elected by the people and the link between the PM and the people have been strengthened by the media’s relentless focus on the office. National leadership most important in times of national crisis, war or in response to major events.

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The Cabinet

·         A committee of leading members of the government

·         Usually 20-23 members, most of whom are secretaries of state responsible for running Whitehall departments

·         Chancellor of the Exchequer, foreign secretary and home secretary most important

·         Cabinet meets once a week on Wednesday morning

·         ‘Kitchen cabinet’: ministers consulted outside of the formal cabinet

·         UK has a system of cabinet government based on the convention of CMR

·         Over the years, it has become accepted that the cabinet is less important than the PM

·         Accepted that meaningful policy debate is, in most cases, conducted elsewhere (Blair only had 30 min weekly meetings!)

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Role of Cabinet

·         Constitutional theory: Cabinet is top body in the UK executive, highest decision making forum

·         Main aspects:

o    Formal policy approval: Policies must be approved by cabinet in order to become official government policy. However, policy can be made without consulting the cabinet, for example Blair’s decision in May 1997 to grant the Bank of England semi-independence in setting interest rates was made through consultation only with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown

o    Policy coordination: Key role of the modern cabinet. Serves to ensure that ministers know what is going on in other departments and also helps to reconcile the responsibilities of ministers for their individual departments with their responsibilities to the government as a whole.

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Role of Cabinet

o    Resolve disputes: Disputes between ministers and between departments are resolved at a lower level. Cabinet can at times serve as a final court of appeal for disagreements that cannot br resolved elsewhere

o    Forum for debate: PM and other ministers can use it as a sounding board to raise issues and to stimulate discussion. Time is limited though

o    Party management: Cabinet takes account of views and morale of the parliamentary party. The chief whip attends cabinet meetings and is usually a full cabinet member because of this

o    Symbol of collective government: Maintains the collective ‘face’ of UK government. Underpinned by CMR

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Ministers and civil servants

·         Ministers expected to run government departments in the sense that they make policy and oversee the work of civil servants

·         Appointed by PM usually from the ranks of the majority party in the H of C. They can be appointed from other parties too

·         All ministers must be MPs or peers, as UK is a ‘parliamentary’ executive.

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Who has power in the executive?

Cabinet government

·         ‘Traditional’ view of the UK executive emphasizes that power is collective and not personal

·         Located in cabinet, not PM. All ministers are equal within the cabinet

·         Each of them has the capacity to influence government policy and shape direction of government

·         So the PM has no more power than any other cabinet member

·         Underpinned by CMR- all ministers expected to publically support decisions made by the cabinet, or resign from the government, to ensure cabinet collegiality that disagreement is only expressed within the secrecy of the cabinet room, not in public

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Cabinet Government continued.

·         However, this is clearly outdated to the time before disciplined political parties in the H of C, when a minister’s threat of resignation could threaten the life of the government itself.

·         As parties became unified, this threat diminished

·         Primary loyalty of MPs shifted from individual cabinet ministers to their party so cabinet government and CMR therefore diminished

·         The Cabinet government model tells us about executive power:

o    PM cannot survive without support of cabinet

o    PM’s authority is linked to the backing they receive from the ‘big beasts’ of the cabinet some of whom may enjoy widespread support within the government and part that they are effectively ‘unsackable’

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Prime Ministerial government

·         Core feature of this view is that it is the PM and not the cabinet who dominates the executive and Parliament, as the PM is both head of the civil service and the leader of the largest party in the Commons

·         The PM government model shows the undoubted growth of PM power, particularly since 1945

·         It acknowledges that the cabinet is no longer the key policy making body

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·         Suggesting that UK PM’s increasingly resemble presidents, with PM such as Wilson, Thatcher and Blair seen as key examples

·         Overlaps with the PM government model- emphasizing PM over cabinet.

·         In US, the cabinet is a subordinate body, merely a source of advice

·         ‘Presidentialization’ has altered the role and influence of the PM and affected the whole of UK government in broader ways

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Evidence includes:

o    Growth of ‘spatial leadership’: Tendency of PMs to distance themselves from their parties and governments by presenting themselves as ‘outsiders’ or developing a personal ideological stance (e.g. ‘Thatcherism/Blairism’)

o    Tendency towards ‘populist outreach’: to try to ‘reach out’ directly to public by claiming to articulate their deepest hopes and fears. Evident that PM speak for the nation over major events, political crises or high profile stories. Reflected in the ‘cult of the outsider’- attempt by PMs to present themselves as non-establishment figures on the side of the ordinary citizen

o    Personalized election campaign: Mass media increasingly portrays elections as personalized battles between the PM and the leader of the opposition. Party leaders thus become the ‘brand image’. Personality and image are important.

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Evidence continued..

o    Personal mandates: PM trend to claim poular authority on the basis of their electoral success. PMs have thus become the ideological consciences of their party or government, chief source of conviction and policy direction

o    Wider use of special advisors: PM increasingly reply on hand picked political advisors (who tend to have a personal loyalty to the PM rather than the party or government) rather than on cabinets, ministers and senior civil servants.

o    Strengthened Cabinet Office: Size and administrative resources available to the Cabinet Office have grown, turning it (perhaps) into a small scale PMs department responsible for co coordinating the rest of Whitehall

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Presidentialism continued

·         Only resemble Presidents, not become them, as the UK has a system of parliamentary government rather than presidential government. No separation of powers or elections as in the US.

·         Presidentialization thesis stresses the growth of personalized leadership and draws attention to the importance of the direct relationship between the PM and people

·         Highlights the growing political significance of the mass media in affecting power balances within the executive and within the larger political system

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Core executive model

·         Recognizes that the PM and cabinet operate within the context of the ‘core executive’                                                                                                           ·         Core executive= An informal network of bodies and actors at the apex of government which play key roles in the formulation of policy and the direction of government.

·         It includes the PM, the cabinet, senior officials in the Treasury and other major government departments, including Bank of England and security and intelligence services, individuals and outside organizations (inc. Think tanks) and key MPs and peers, esp. Government whips and possibly chairs of important select committees.

·         Neither the PM nor the cabinet is an independent actor

·         Each of them exercises influence in and through a network of relationships, formal and informal, bringing a range of other actors and institutions into the picture

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Core executive model continued..

·         Balance of power within the core executive is affected by the resources available to its various actors

·         Wider factors, such as economic and diplomatic developments, influence the workings of the core executive

·         Emphasizes that PM power is not only constrained by cabinet collegiality, but also by the need to operate within complex organizations and procedures. Power is never monocratic

·         Highlights that power within the executive is more about building relationships with key bodies and actors than simply being a matter of ‘command and control’

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PM’s power

·         Derived from the Royal Prerogative, now mainly exercised by the PM and other ministers, not the Queen

·         Including powers to:- Power of patronage: Can appoint ministers and other senior figures (inc. Top judges and senior bishops of the C of E) -Dissolve and recall Parliament -Sign treaties- Grant honours

·         Power is largely informal rather than formal

·         Based on the ability to persuade and influence than to dictate

·         Powerful because they stand at the apex of three crucial sets of relationships:-The cabinet, individual ministers and government departments- Their party, and through it, with Parliament-The people, often through the mass media

·         These relationships explain how PMs exert influence across the system of government and why that influence is always conditional and subject (potentially) to constraints

·         PM power fluctuates from PM to PM

·         Asquith: ‘the post of the PM is whatever its holder chooses and is able to make of it’                   ·         Importance of personality and leadership style

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PM's Power continued.

·         PM power fluctuates from PM to PM

·         Asquith: ‘the post of the PM is whatever its holder chooses and is able to make of it’

·         Importance of personality and leadership style

·         What they are ‘able’ to make of their office depends on:

o    Powers of the PM

o    Constraints on the PM

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Hiring and firing continued

·         Gordon Brown: June 2007, carried out the largest cabinet reshuffle for over 100 years in order to put his own personal stamp on government and to indicate that a changed PM meant a changed government

-11 members either stood down or were sacked

-9 new people entered the cabinet, inc. 7 who had never previously held a cabinet post

·         Power of patronage has limits:

-All ministers must be MPs or peers

-All (or vast majority at least) of ministers must come from the majority party

-Party unity requires an ideological and political balance within the cabinet

-Particular groups should be represented, i.e. women

-Opponents may be less dangerous inside government (when subject to CMR) than outside

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Cabinet management

·         PM has scope for managing and controlling the cabinet and larger cabinet system, enabling PM to harness the decision making authority of the cabinet to their own ends                                                      ·         Means that the PM can effectively determine the role and significance of the cabinet                    ·         This is done by the PM:                                                                                                                              -Chair cabinet meetings, manage their own agendas and discussions and sum up decisions (votes rarely held in cabinet)

-Convene cabinet meetings and decide how often they will be called and how long they will last

-Decide the number and nature of cabinet committees, sub committees, and ministerial groups, appoint their members and chairs (PM will usually chair the most important cabinet committees

·         Since 1950s, number and duration of cabinet meetings has steadily declined

·         Under Blair they rarely lasted more than one hour, lengthened under Brown

·         Cabinet meetings are generally used simply to address formal business with wider discussion not encouraged and dissent not tolerated

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Cabinet management continued..

·         Thatcher and Blair, in particular, made greater use of committees and sub committees

·         Blair tended to adopt a more informal style of decision making, sometimes called ‘sofa government’, involving operating through ‘bilaterals’, meetings between Blair and individual ministers, which either bypassed the cabinet system or effectively made policy before it was ratified by the full cabinet

PM’s ability to manage and control the cabinet has its limits:

-Cabinet’s support for the PM is conditional on the PM being popular and successful

-Cabinet resignations, particularly those of senior figures, can damage political support for and the public standing of the PM

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Party leadership


·         Underpins all other aspects of PM power, setting the PM apart from all other ministers and giving them leverage across the wider governmental system. This happens in at least 3 ways:

-Party leadership increases the PM’s authority within the cabinet and go, as other ministers recognize that party loyalty focuses on the PM and not on any other minister

-Allows the PM to control Parliament through commanding a disciplined majority in the H of C

-More widely, party members recognize that the party’s fortunes are closely linked to the PM’s personal standing, tending to discourage splits and public criticism of the PM

·         Benefits from party leadership are limited:         

-PM is meant to deliver electoral success, as the party leader. Is the government becomes unpopular, especially if the PM is viewed as an electoral liability, party loyalty may decline quickly

-No PM can survive without the support of their party

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Institutional supports

·         Since 1945, PM power has grown significantly as a result of the build up of bodies and advisors who support the PM, helping to compensate for a traditional weakness of the PM-the PM does not have a department

·         Two most important bodies serving the PM are:-PM’s Office, which since 2002 has included the Policy Unit -The Cabinet Office, which has developed into the coordinating hub of the UK executive, helping to ‘join up’ the work of the Whitehall government departments

·         Role and influence of the Cabinet Office was significantly extended under Blair, who created new special offices and units, such as the Delivery Unit (to monitor and improve policy delivery) the Social Exclusion Unit, the Performance and Innovation Unit, the Women’s Unit, and the UK Anti-Drugs Co-ordination Unit

·         Also, the number and significance of special advisors, who are responsible directly to the PM has increased markedly·         Major had eight special advisors, Blair eventually had 50 ·         Blair became the first PM to give senior special advisors formal control over civil servants -Applied in the case of Jonathan Powell, the PM’s chief of staff 1997-2007 -Alistair Campbell, Blair’s high profile director of communications, 1997-2004  ·         However, the benefit of these institutional supports is limited:-They are meagre by comparison with the institutional supports available to a US president-Even the expanded Cabinet Office does not amount to a PM’s department

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Access to the media

·         Growing influence of the mass media, and particularly of radio and TV has been a major factor in altering the power of the PM since 1945·         Has increased flow of information to public, especially the internet·         Reordered power relationships within the political executive

·         Key factor in explaining the growth of presidentialism, strengthening PM power in 3 main ways:

-Growth of ‘political celebrity’ gives PM and other party leaders the ability to appeal ‘over the heads’ of their senior colleagues, parties and government institutions, directly to the public. Reflected in the phenomenon or spatial leadership

-Media’s obsession with personality and image guarantees that media attention focuses primarily on political leaders, especially on the PM. The public profile of the PM therefore eclipses that of other politicians, including senior cabinet colleagues

-Control over government communications means that PM has been able to structure the flow of information to the public,

-particularly evident in the Thatcher period, through the work of her press secretary, Bernard Ingham

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Access to the media continued...

-During the Blair era, through the influence of Alistair Campbell, it gave rise to an emphasis on ‘spin’ and so called ‘news management’·         Examples include:-Use of ‘leaks’ or unattributable briefings-Careful ‘vetting’ of information and arguments before release to the media-Feeding of stories only to sympathetic media sources-Releasing of information close to media deadlines to prevent checking or the identification of counter arguments-Release of ‘bad’ news at times when other, more important, events dominate the news agenda

·         Spin: Biased or distorted presentation of information so as to gain a desired response, being ‘economical with the truth’

·         However, media attention does not always work to the benefit of the PM:

-‘Bad news’ stories (such as policy blunders and ministerial resignations) are often ‘hyped’ by the media, turning a problem into a crisis

-Emphasis on ‘spin’ and ‘news management’ may prove (as Blair discovered) to be counter-productive, as it undermines trust in government and the credibility of the PM

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Constraints on the PM

The Cabinet

·         Although it is dismissed as merely a ‘dignified’ institution, it can still sometimes act as a major constraint

·         Influence of the cabinet is most clearly reflected in the power that can be wielded by leading individual ministers, the ‘big beasts’

·         Political ‘weight’ of a cabinet minister is determined by three factors:-The seniority of their office-Their standing within the party-Their public profile

·         PMs may either have to conciliate key cabinet colleagues or accept the damage that they resignations may cause           

·         For example, in the weakening of Thatcher’s authority in the late 1980s, which was affected by growing disunity within her cabinet. Her public image and standing within the party were damaged by the resignations of three senior ministers:-Michael Heseltine, (defence secretary) in 1986-Nigel Lawson (Chancellor of the Exchequer) in 1989-Geoffrey Howe (deputy PM) in 1990

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Constraints on the PM


·         Although Thatcher survived these resignations, they provided the context for her eventual downfall in December 1990

·         Leadership election was precipitated by Heseltine’s challenge, with Lawson and Howe giving Heseltine’s bid strong public support

·         Another, clear example of a PM being forced to conciliate a powerful cabinet colleague was Blair in relation to Gordon Brown, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1997-2007

·         Brown’s high standing in the party and prominence in the process of Labour’s Party ‘modernization’ and (perhaps) agreements that were made in 1994 when Brown decided not to stand against Blair for the vacant Labour leadership, so Blair granted Brown and the Treasury unprecedented power after 1997.

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Constraints on the PM

·         This created a kind of ‘dual monarchy’ within the Blair government.

·         Brown was able to use his powerbase within the Treasury to exert influence over all aspects of domestic policy, controlling not only the flow of money but also policy developments such as the pace and nature of welfare reform.

·         Clearest evidence of Brown’s power was his ability to effectively veto the UK’s entry into the European single currency, by the establishment of five economic tests that had to be passed before euro membership could go ahead

·         Examples of cabinets taking collective action against the PM are extremely rare, however, because the fate of the PM and of the government are so closely entwined

·         Thatcher claimed, however, that she had been ousted by a cabinet coup through the withdrawal of ministerial support once she had failed to secure re-election as party leader on the first ballot

·         Thatcher only lost support of her cabinet once she has lost the support her parliamentary party, so her cabinet may have precipitated her resignation, but did not cause her downfall.

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The party

·         Support is conditional as party leadership is a responsibility as well as a power

·         Parties look to PMs to provide leadership that will help to maintain party unity and ensure the party’s electoral success

·         Failure to do so brings a heavy price, notably in Thatcher’s downfall

·         Key factor in her downfall was her failure to win sufficient support from MPs in the leadership election, falling four votes short of being 15% ahead of her nearest challenger (even though she secured an overall majority) as the then party rules required

·         Backbench support had declined because of her anti-EU stance and by the stark unpopularity of the poll tax.

·         In particular, Thatcher became to be viewed as an electoral liability, so they acted to save themselves and their party rather than the PM

·    John Major’s premiership was blighted by deepening tensions within the Conservative Party over Europe, especially growing hostility from a small but highly determined group of Euro sceptic MPs

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The party

·         Open criticism and escalating backbench revolts finally persuaded Major to resign as party leader in June 1995 to precipitate a leadership election in which he hoped to defeat his critics

·         He emerged as victor, but the tactic, if anything, further damaged his authority and failed to resolve the party’s ideological disputes.

·         A record of almost unremitting party division after 1992 and Major’s declining authority over his party undoubtedly contributed to the disastrous Conservative defeat of 1997.

·         Blair’s authority over the Labour Party declined significantly after the Iraq War in 2003, stimulating the largest backbench rebellion against any government for over 100 years and created a mood of restiveness and unease amongst a growing proportion of Labour backbenchers that lasted for the rest of his premiership

·         Brown: In June 2007, the renewed power of the backbenchers was demonstrated once Brown became party leader and PM. In his first month as PM, he suffered 8 backbench rebellions (though none led to a government defeat), more than the total number of revolts against all incoming PMs in their first month since 1945

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The electorate

·         In a sense, the state of public opinion underpins all the other constraints on the PM

·         When they are popular, their authority over the cabinet and the party is assured

·         Thatcher’s vulnerability in the late 1980s coincided with declining poll ratings and early signs of improved support for Labour.

·         Major’s control of his party was damaged by a succession of by election defeats and defeats in local and European Parliament elections.

·         Blair’s authority over his party and government was weakened by Labour’s reduced majority in 2005 and improved poll ratings for Conservatives

·         Blair’s declining personal popularity leading up to the 2005 election in fact persuaded him to pre-announce his resignation, leaving his as a ‘lame duck’ for the rest of his term in office

·         For Brown, his stature as PM was badly damaged in October 2007 by confused messages over the likely timing of the next election, squandering the brief poll lead over the Conservatives he has established in the early months of his premiership

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The mass media

·         PM’s relationship with the public is in fact rarely direct, their image is presented to the public through the ‘prism’ of the mass media

·         There are indications that the media is becoming more critical of politicians generally and more difficult to manage, evident in battles between the Blair government and the BBC over allegations that in the run up to the Iraq Warm the government had ‘sexed up’ a dossier emphasizing the military threat posed by Iraq to the UK

·         Clear the media plays a major role in bringing about ministerial resignations, perhaps the most important decision PM has to take is the balance between damage to their image and to the government by continuing negative media coverage and that would be caused by a ministerial resignation.

·         Media’s coverage of politics has become more difficult for PMs to manage for the following reasons:

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The mass media continued...

-A tendency to ‘hype’: Increasingly intense commercian pressures force the media to make their coverage of politics ‘****’ and attention grabbing. A ‘crisis’ rather than a ‘problem’, a ‘split’ than a ‘division’, and a ‘bitter attack’ than a ‘criticism’

-The blurring of facts and interpretation: Less of a difference between news and comment

-Television increasingly follows the print media in its style of political and current affairs coverage: Not only are television stories picked up from newspaper headlined but it also affected the style of current affairs coverage on TV

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The pressure of events

·         Highlighting the limited control that PMs have over ‘what happens’

·         eg-Thatcher initiated the Falklands War of 1992 and considerably benefited from the victory, but had the outcome been different as it nearly was, her premiership may have been destroyed

·         John Major was less fortunate over ‘Black Wednesday’, 16 Sep 1992, when intensifying currency speculation finally forced the UK to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM- an arrangement which linked the value of the pound to that of other EC currencies) The ERM crisis has a profound affect on the rest of Major’s premiership, as it destroyed the government’s rep for economic competence. Major government consistently lagged behind Labour in the polls from ‘Black Wednesday’ until its eventual defeat in 1997

·         Blair: Public reputation badly damaged by the suicide of David Kelly, a biological war expert who has contributed to the development of the government’s Iraq military dossier in July 2003. Kelly’s death substantially intensified media and political speculation about the basis on which the decision to go to war was made and about the honesty and trustworthiness of the PMProblem of events is a structural one, not merely a question of random surprises.Occurs in 3 ways:

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-PMs only control top-level decisions: Implementation of decisions is in the hands of bodies and actors over whom PMs have little direct control, e.g. the effectiveness of welfare reforms is affected by decisions taken by people such as hospital managed, doctors, head teachers, college principles and so forth              -The growth of presidentialism has over-stretched the prime minister’s breadth of interests: PMs are now expected to speak out on all important questions, domestic and international, and they are also held responsible for blunders and mistakes wherever they may occur. Rising crime levels, bad weather and flooding, was casualties, economic figures, splits within the EU and so forth therefore present PMs with a seemingly endless range of ‘events’ to respond to (e.g. Recent Volcanic ash clouds and the stranded citizens in foreign countries) -Prime ministerial power may be counter-productive: The ability of PMs to react appropriately to political events may be impaired by their increasing reliance on close confidantes and handpicked advisors. PMs may as a result, lose their political ‘touch’, replying on what their advisors want to hear and not exposed to a wide range of views. Examples of this include miscalculations such as Thatcher’s introduction of the poll tax and Blair’s stubborn determination to support the USA in Iraq.

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Old Sir


A very useful and comprehensive overview of the Westminster model of a core executive. Many students will find the examples used in the later cards, relating to factors affecting prime ministerial power, especially helpful when assembling case studies to exemplify issues to be discussed in addressing AO2, (evaluation and analysis).

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