Prime Minister and Cabinet: Theories of executive power

Theories of who has power in the executive: ie who runs our country?

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Theories of Executive Power

There are four main models which explain to an extent who holds power in the executive, although none of them can be said to be fully 'right' or 'wrong'.

  • Cabinet government
  • Prime-ministerial government
  • Presidentialism
  • Core executive model
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Cabinet Government

This is the most traditional view of executive power.

Power is collective, not personal, and it is found in the cabinet rather than the prime minister. All cabinet members are equal in having capacity to influence government policy. The prime minister is only 'first' by name.

Underpinned by the convention of 'collective ministerial responsibility', where ministers are expected to publicly support government decisions, or resign from government. This ensures cabinet collegiality, in that disagreement is kept within the secrecy of the cabinet and never in public.

BUT this theory is outdated, in that it came before the time of party unity and discipline. MPs now are loyal to their party as a whole rather than individual cabinet members, so cabinet government has diminished in importance. 

What it says about executive power: No prime minister can survive if they lose the support of their cabinet colleagues - e.g. last governing days of Margaret Thatcher. AND, the Prime Minister's authority is linked to the backing he has from 'big beast' cabinet members who have a lot of public support.

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Prime Ministerial Government

The prime minister's power has grown considerably, so cabinet government theory has become a less relevant way of explaining executive power.

The role of prime minister as leader of the largest party means that party loyalty is focused on him rather than the party as a whole. In that sense, how can he simply just be 'first amongst equals?'

Core idea is that it is the prime minister, not the cabinet, who dominates both the executive and Parliament. This occurs because the prime minister is both head of the civil service and the leader of the largest party in the commons.

What this shows about executive power:

Highlights the undoubted growth in prime ministerial power.

Acknowledges that cabinet is no longer the key policy making body

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Presidential government

In the last century, it has been said that prime ministers are increasingly starting to resemble presidents, particularly Thatcher and Blair. Overlaps largely with the prime ministerial model. Signs of growing presidentialism in the UK:

  • Spatial Leadership - some recent prime ministers have distanced themselves from their party and developed their own 'brand' of party ideology, e.g. Thatcherism, Blairism
  • 'Populist outreach' - appealing directly to the public, claiming to know their hopes and fears, and to claim be on the side of the every day citizen.
  • Personalised election campaigns - party leaders become the 'brand image' of the party during election times, much like US presidential campaighns. e.g. the first ever pre-election debate in the UK between main party leaders in 2010.
  • Personal mandates - Tendency to claim popular authority after great electoral success.
  • Wider use of special advisors (SPADs) over civil servants/ministers, who are loyal to the prime minister himself rather than government.
  • Strengthened cabinet office - cabinet now resembles a small scale prime minister's department and is much better resourced.

This model highlights the growth of personalised leadership and the importance of the direct relationship between prime minister and public. Also shows importance of mass media.

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Core executive model

Provides an alternative to the 'prime minister vs cabinet' idea which has been present in all the other models. This model suggests that:

  • Neither the prime minister or cabinet is an independent actor.
  • Each holds an influence through different networks of relationships within the core executive, informal and formal.
  • The balance of power within the executive depends on the resources available to each 'actor'.
  • Other factors such as economic and diplomatic developments influence the workings of the core executive.

What it tells us about executive power:

  • Prime ministerial power not only constrained by cabinet collegiality but by the need to operate by certain organizations and procedures.
  • Highlights that power depends is more to do with building relationships with key bodies rather than being a matter of 'command and control.'
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