Formation of the executive
A key feature of UK political system is parliamentary government, aka the members of government are also MP’s. Prime minister and other ministers are directly elected by voters in their constituencies. The general election is where all constituencies select their mp’s for seats in commons. Whichever political part wins over half the seats becomes governing party.
Leader of winning party is summoned by monarch they are then appointed and they will appoint other ministers inside and outside the cabinet. This is normally done day after election and cabinet is established few days later.
This is very different to the executive in the US where president is directly elected in early November but not till January do they start and none of the presidents ministers are member of either house of congress.
Position of prime minister
“primus inter pares” translated first among equals. He or she is first in government to be appointed so they are the first. Also they are first in the sense of being the most important minister. Essentially, government in the UK is collective with a single head to guide it.
The prime minister’s sources of power
Appointment and patronage
PM is responsible for selection of cabinet and non cabinet ministers. While in office they must promote and dismiss ministers. This power is key because the backbench MP’s know their success is down to the loyalty to government and the PM.
PM can also appoint people outside government, chair of the bbc is subject to PM. Also government appointed quangos are gifts from PM. Until recently pm was also responsible for new members of the lords but an independent body oversees this process but pm still has control over number of appointments and who is in the independent body.
The royal prerogative
Many powers the PM have derived from the monarch. Officially the monarch dispenses parliament but in practice, it is the PM who asks for dissolution of parliament when a general election is to be held.
Another power is to declare war, it is done in the name of the monarch but the decision is made by the pm. For the Iraq war in 03 Blair took the issue to debate in commons before he made decision and brown said parliament should be approached before going to war too.
PM has the majority of MPs in the commons. The bigger the majority the greater the power you have. A majority parliament enables to pm to get most if not all legislation through commons. Despite backbench revolts Blair didn’t suffer a commons defeat from 97 to 05.
All PMs have been elected leaders of their parties. The parties have different systems of choosing their leaders but they can all get rid of them. Parties normally remain loyal to leaders but sometimes this loyalty can go, Thatcher was forced out because she wasn’t supported in sufficient numbers when challenged for position by Heseltine.
Focus of attention is often on leaders of political parties from media. During 97 and 01 election campaigns tony Blair had a lot of emphasis placed on him because he was a strong and popular personality. He was on the cover of the manifestos as well. It can be said one of browns weaknesses is that he does not have an attractive media image.
Factors constraining PM power
Factors affecting appointments
Colleagues who have shown support and personal loyalty will expect some reward. If they are not rewarded, one of the reasons for political loyalty, self interest will weaken. Michael Heseltine was made deputy PM, this was seen as a reward for continued support of John Major I his fight for the conservative party leadership.
Sometimes it is good to have the critics within government, keep them off the backbenches and inside government where they are expected to keep support of government policy. An example is Tony Benn when he was kept in cabinet despite disagreeing with both PMs, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson. The PM may wish to have balance of opinions within party in government. Clare short wasn’t a keen advocate of the “middle way” but she became an important figure in Tony Blair’s cabinet until she resigned in 03. The continued presence of Gordon brown showed that there was an alternative to blair agenda at the core of the labour party.
Factors affecting appointments - continued
The expectations of some individuals can also constrain PMs. The labour party has rules which effectively determine the choice of cabinet colleagues after first winning power. When in opposition, the shadow cabinet was elected by labour MPs and Tony Blair was limited to choice of colleagues immediately after 97 general election. However, when Blair had first cabinet reshuffle these MPs were sacked.
The PM must also think about gender and ethic factors, blair had 5 women and Paul Boateng, the first black MP in cabinet. They also judge on age, there needs to be a balance of youth and experience insuring younger mps can build on their opinions.
The parliamentary majority enjoyed by the PM party may not be large, Sometimes a government with no majority in parliament will not get through contentious legislation, James Callaghan found this out in the late 70s. In the end he lost vote of confidence in commons in 79.The loyalty of political party cannot always be assured. Thatcher led a party that was divided in 90 and eventually cabinet forced her out during leadership contest. Tony blair faced lots of hostility within his own party especially after war in Iraq and policies on tuition fees and foundation hospitals.
The issue of personality is also double edged. If the pm does not have much personal charisma it will lead to poor media image, Gordon brown. But sometimes with too much charisma can lead to political unpopularity, Blair was forced to announce his resignation a year in advance due to backbench pressure.
Most senior ministers in government are in cabinet. Each government department has its most senior minister in the cabinet. Eg secretary of state for health. Also in the government departments are more junior ministers such as under secretaries of state or ministers of state, these are responsible for a particular part of work of their department. These ministers are not in cabinet.
Some members of cabinet are not heads of departments, they include he government chief whip and leader of House of Commons and some ministers without portfolio who have some important party function.
The cabinet was seen as the heart of the policy making process, a place of immense power and authority. However, nowadays people say cabinet does not have as much power.
It only meets once a week for less than an hour. So in reality the cabinet only acts as a final nod to policy and often simply endorses the recommendations of other forums such as cabinet sub committees. It is often the case that the cabinet will attempt to fix any problems with ministers and departments.
Power in cabinet tends to shift towards the PM but there have been occasions where the collective has prevailed. Most notably when Thatcher resigned once she realised the majority of her cabinet didn’t support her.
Functions of cabinet
Cabinet should be at heart of policy formulation process. However, detailed policy formulation and implementation don’t happen in cabinet, it doesn’t have the time or expertise. Cabinet is where policies are prioritised or where other groups are told to take more detailed policy formulation.
Dealing with crises and emergencies
Cabinet plays an important role when unexpected events arise, cabinet minsters play a big part in presenting a united face when facing national crisis. Black Wednesday in September 92 the entire cabinet met to show support with pm and chancellor of exchequer after they were forced out of European exchange rate mechanism.
Controlling the parliamentary agenda
There is a limited amount of time in which to debate various government policies in parliament. The cabinet is responsible for deciding what the parliamentary agenda is. Ministers are involved in struggling to get their policies of their departments into laws.
Ratifying decisions formulated elsewhere
Cabinet can be seen as an endorsing body, much policy is formulated by cabinet committees and it is up to cabinet to decide if they want to endorse or reject the policy proposal.
Settling interdepartmental disputes
Often compete for scare resources and the allocation of time to get legislation onto statute book. If matter cant be settled between the two departments then the cabinet as a whole must decide on the matter. This was very common in the 80s when thatcher cabinet was called on to settle disputes on money for public expenditure.
Cabinet is divided into numerous sub-committees which look at specific policy areas, there is an economic strategy committee. These committees are composed of government ministers and civil servants. It is often at committee level that much formulation of government policy is made.
Tony Blair has been critized for downgrading the role of cabinet. Gordon brown said when he took office june 07 that he wanted to restore collective government of cabinet. Blair reduced it because he preferred meeting one on one, this made sure that the discussions were focused and there can be proper regular review of work of each government department. However, some say that this approach gives the pm more influence over individual government departments.
Collective ministerial responsibility
Responsibility for actions of government is taken collectively by government as a whole. Members of cabinet and other government minister must agree in public on government policy. If they do not agree they must resign an example is Robin Cook before iraq war in 03 and clare short who resigned because of unease with the way un role in post war iraq was being marginalised by the us.
Individual ministerial responsibility
Ministers are responsible for what happens in their own departments, if there are any errors made they must accept responsibility. They have regular questioning in house of commons and select committee hearing where they must explain aspects of policy or procedure. Now the media adds to the scrutiny. Traditionally, Ministers were supposed to resign. However, ministers now tend to not resign even if it involves blaming others in the department. A key example of someone resigning is lord Carrington as foreign secretary in 82, because of foreign office failings before argentina invasion of Falkland islands.
In the past few years there are some ministerial resignations which fit the theory of individual ministerial responsibility. In 02 stephen byers resigned after a poor period as transport secretary and in 04 the immigration minister resigned because of visa scam that had not been dealt with by home office.
Individual ministerial responsibility - continued
However, examples of ministers not resigning are, Michael Howard didn’t resign following a series of cricisims from members of judiciary. Also, Alistar Darling resisted calls for resignation over governments handling of northern rock critis in late 07. Nowadays, ministers are likely to resign due to personal misconduct as much as political failings. John Major had lots of sleaze allocations before the 97 election and Blair lost many allies due to conduct issues. Mandelson and Blunkett resigned twice from such issues.
Ministers and Civil Servants
Defining the civil service
The function of the civil service is to advise and implement. The civil service has clerical staff, executive staff (those who carry out political policy) and advisory and decision making staff. There are 3 constitutional principles that govern the working of the UK civil service….
Permanence – civil service traditionally been a career profession, civil servants remain in office even when a particular party loses power. For this reason they need to display the other 2 characteristics.
Neutrality – Civil servants must advise ministers and implement policy without bias or favour. They need to be able to do their job regardless of who is in power.
Anonymity – Civil servants have been expected to give minsters a range of advice, and this might involve including controversial ideas. Ministers don’t make this advice public since they may need it in future.
Defining the civil service - continued
The three principles are joined by one principle. Individual ministerial responsibility. No matter how successful or badly the department does the minister is expected to take the credit or the blame for the political policies in the department. Even if civil servants make clear failings it is the minister who must resign.
Ministers have traditionally been unable to hide behind the civil servants. It is the ministers who are accountable to parliament for conduct of their departments and the government is ultimately responsible.
Changes in the civil service
How changes in the civil service have affected constitutional principles
Some of the most important changes in the civil service have taken place since 79. Some of these changes have been reforms and two of the most important are Rayner reforms and next steps reforms.
When Thatcher was elected in 79 she appointed M & S boss Sir Derek Rayner to head an efficiency unit which was to make sure the civil servants became more business like in their approach to matters in their departments. Rayner wanted to cut out wasteful practices and he believed it would make the civil service more efficient. By the mid 80s the civil service had cut its numbers from 750,000 to 600,000.
Next Steps reforms
Sir Robin Ibbs replaced Derek Rayner in the mid 80s. Ibbs wanted to become even more efficient. He said that many of the functions of the civil service like the maintenance of roads and motorways or the payment of social security benefits do not need to be controlled directly by the departments of transport or social security. Instead, Ibbs said that they should be managed by dedicated agencies that would deliver the service without being closely linked with the government department. This would separate the advisory/decision making functions of the civil service from the implementation function. By the time major government was over in 97 there were more than 130 of the agencies. Bodies such as the highways agency, the benefits agency, the driver and vehicle licensing agency and the environment agency are all bodies which were once being carried out from within government departments.
One of the most controversial developments in recent years has been the growth in “special advisers”. They are non career civil servants who appointed to offer political advice to ministers. The advice given is likely to be in line with government policy. For more than 40 years the advisors have been around however, since the 97 election there has been a big increase as ministers now have a number of sources of advice from within the departments.
How changes in the civil service have affected constitutional principles
Permanence – civil service has been affected by Rayner reforms, since many civil servants lost their jobs. The growth in the number of special advisers means that more civil servants leave their jobs when a minister leaves.
Neutrality – It has been affected by the fact that there are more partisan advisers taking civil service jobs. However, the total number of special advisers is only 80 or 90 in all governmental departments. Considering that there are over half a million civil servants the impact of these advisers is not that high.
Anonymity – Has been affected by introduction of departmental select committees in Parliament. Civil servants and ministers may be summoned to give evidence to one of these committees, since 1979 when they were brought in hundreds have been called. The introduction of the next steps agencies has also made changes to the idea of anonymity. The people who are in charge of the agencies are much more likely to be in the public than their predecessors in government departments.
Individual ministerial responsibility – The select committee system now exposes civil servants to the type of scrutiny that in the past only ministers had to deal with. The bigger impact has come from the next step reforms, it is said that because of dividing policy and operation matters between agencies and relevant departments ministers are now able to avoid responsibility for mistakes made at agency level. A good example is after prisoners broke out of Whitemoor prison it was the head of the prison service, Derek Lewis who was sacked as it was considered an operational error but in the past it would be the minister who must take responsibility.