The Prime Minister and Cabinet

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How governments are formed

If one party has won an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons after a general election, its leader will be invited  by the monarch to form a government. When no party wins an overall majority, as occured in Feb 1974 and May 2010. This was the order of events:

  • The day after elections no party has an pverall majority.
  • The Conservatives were the largest party in the new House of Commons but were 20 seats short of an overall majority.
  • Prime Minister Gordon Brown didn't resign, though Labour had come well behind the Conservatives. The Labour leadership entered negotiations to form a coaltion with the Lib Dems.
  • Over several days, the Lib Dems conducted simultaneous negotitations with both parties with a view to forming a coalition. 
  • Then became apparent that a Labour-Lib Dems coaltion was more logical in terms of policy. Lib Dems and Labour didn't form a majority. They had to rely on a rainbow coalition of progressive MPs. Such a colation would have enjoyed a majority of only three and would be very fragile
  • Gordon Brown resigned
  • Cameron accepted and shortly after announced that negotiations for coaltion with the Lib Dems 
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Definition of Political leadership

A general term referring to all individuals wh hold some power within a political system. it refers not only governement, but also to leading members of other parties and political associations.

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Characteristics of the government

  • All members of the government must sit in Parliament as well as being ministers, etc. Most, but not all are MPs in the Commons. MPs have a constituency, even the PM. 
  • MPs from the party are not members of the government. They are known as back-benchers, while government members are known as front-benchers.
  • All members of the government are appointed by the prime minister. PM may seekadvice from trusted colleagues but the decision is theirs alone. 
  • All members of government are bound by the principle of collective responsibility. This means that they must take public responsibility for all policies of the government, even s they diagree privately or had nothing to do with the formulation of policy. 
  • The full government- 100 plus members- would never normally meet together in one body. The cabinet, usually of 22-23 members, does meet regularly. 
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Ministerial Selection

The Prime Minister must decides whom they put in government. This is decided by:

  • They must be politically reliable. This does not necessarily means that they should agree with the prime minister on every issue, but its doesn't mean that they will be willing to accept collective responsibility and support the government, at least in public. 
  • Junior ministers, on the first rungs pf the promotion ladder that leads to cabinet office, must have potential.
  • Political leaders like Blair and Thatcher, who have a trong political philosophy and want to put that into practice. They noramlly try to recruit a team of ministers who share their polticial view. 
  • Potential ministers must have managerial skills. Those who will head a government department or a section of a department wil have a large number of civil servants. 
  • Under coalition, ministerial selection is more complicated. Two decisions have to be made:
    • How many cabinet posts should each of the coaltion partners have.
    • There must be a discussion between the two coalition party leaders t build a colation of support from other parties, or sections of other parties. 
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Minority government

Unusual, unstable and normally short lived. But they aren't unheard of. Party forms government without a parliamentary majority. 

This was the case in Britian from February to October 1974 and it also occured in the 1920s

Usually a minority is a caretaker government, waiting for a fresh general eletion to produce a decisive result/

They can never rely on getting its legialtion or its financial budgets passed. It must try and build a coaltion of support.

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Coalition government

Majority coalition: Normally formed by just two parties, such coaltions are formed simply to create a parliamentary majority. This was the type of arrangement that was forged in 2010.

Grand coalition: These are coalitions between two parties, formed to create an overwhelming majority. They would normally be considered in times of national emergency or crisis.

Rainbow coalitions: These are arrangents between a larger number of parties, often of grealty varying philosophies. It would noramlly be one large party and several other smaller parties.

National coalitions: These are coalitions wehre all parties (or sections of parties) are invited to participate. They occur at times of national crisis and are designed to create unity. Britian used such a coalition in the 1930s, when there was a major economic depression, and in the Second World War. 

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Alternatives to coalitions

May 2010

  • Conservative minority government. This would have been 20 seats short of the majority and would have relied on the support from the demcoratic Unionists in NI.
  • A progressive rainbow coalition. Made up of Labour, the LIb Dems, the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, the Northern Irealand SDLP, and Alliance MP and a Green MP, this would have made a total 329 MPs, giving a majority of eight.
  • A Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. This was the most successful option. It commanded the theoretical support of 363 MPs, a majority of 76.
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Definition of Cabinet government

A system of government where the cabinet is the central policy-making body.

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Key cabinet committees operating in March 2012

  • Coalition Operation and Stategy
  • Social Justice
  • Home Affairs
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Public Expenditure
  • National Security Council
  • Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies
  • Olympics
  • Banking Reform
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Cabinet is the same under Coalition

  • It remains dominated by the Prime Minister who controls agenda and chairs meetings.
  • Its meetings are still secret
  • It remains the collective identity of the government
  • All members of government are expected to defend publicly all decisions.
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Cabinet is NOT the same under Coalition

  • There are still "agreement to differ" between coalition partners. These apply to general policy, but not specific cabinet decisions. E.g. Lib Dem members do not support the move towards more nuclear power generation, but have to support specific cabinet decisions to build new nuclear power stations.
  • Where Liberal Democrat members are to be appointed to cabinet or moved within cabinet, the prime minister must agree the move with his deputy, the Lib Dem leader.
  • It does appear that the rules of collective responsibility are now weaker, though they still exist. All memebrs of the coaltition government had to defend the changes even though thye disagree privately.
  • There is a greater risk of conflict within cabinet, the Prime Minister has to take more account of differing opinions than he might normally do.  
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Definition of Collective responsibility

In the Uk all cabinet decisions must be collectively supported by all members of the government, at least in public. It also implies that the whole governmnet stands or falls, as one, om the dicisions made by the cabinet.

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Definition of Individual Ministerial responsibilit

The convention that a minister should resign if their department makes a serious political or personal error. In practice, this usually means that a minister is responsible to Parliament and must face questioning and criticism.

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Examples of Individual Ministerial responsibility

2010- David Laws resigned over alleged irregularities in his claiming of parliamentary expenses.

2011- Liam Fox resigned after he was accused of using a private adviser in his work as Defence Secretary when the advisor had not been properly authorised to advise him.

2012- Chris Huhne resigned as Environment Secretary when he was charged with a crime relating to msleading the police over a driving offence.

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The functions of the Prime minister

  • Chief policy maker- the role is shared with other ministers, with cabinet and his party, the part is completely pre-eminent in making the government's policy.
  • Head of government- a function that covers a number of roles. They are in charge of machinery of government. They can create and abolish them, estbalish committees and policy units and amalgamate exsisting ones.
  • Chief government spokesperson- It is now expected that the PM must be the ultimate source of the official version of government policy to the media.
  • Commander-in-chief of the armed forces- exercised on behalf of the monarch.
  • Chief foreign-policy maker- A function carried out for the monarch. Anything from negotiating with foreign powers to negotiating and signing treaties.
  • Parliamentary leader- Although government ministers play a ubstantial role in deabtes and parliamentary questioning, it is the role of the PM to lead his party in Parliament.
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The sources of PM power and authority

  • The ruling party- It is possible but unlikely for the PM not to be the leader of the governing party. It is safe to assume that the PM has the support of his party both in Parliament and in the country in the form of the ordinary members.
  • The royal prerogative- The reigning monarch retains, in theory and in law, the power to carry out functions as head of state.
  • Popular mandate- The electorate technically chooses MPs and a party when they vote at a general election. They are also conscious of the fact they are electing a PM when voting for a party.
  • Parliament- The PM is a parliamentary leader. As long as he has the support of the Majority in the House of Commons he can claim to have parliamentary authority. 
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Prime Ministerial powers

  • Appointment and dismissal of ministers.
  • Granting peerages and other honours
  • Head of the Civil service
  • Appointing senior judges and senior bishops
  • Commanding the armed forces
  • Conducting foreign relations
  • Maintaining national security
  • Chairing cabinet meetings
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Limitations fo PM power

  • The size of the parliamentary majority is critical 
  • The unity or otherwise of the ruling party or coalition is also critical
  • The public and media profile of the PM is important
  • PM can survive only if they enjoy the confidence of the cabinet Parliament
  • PM may be hindered by opposition from their own party
  • Coalition brings its own special problems. 
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PM vs Presidential government

  • PM has come to be head of state, effectively not legally. 
  • The PM now has an extensive network of personal advisers, think tanks, policy units and working groups serve him alone and are not available to the rest of the government unless he wants them to be so.
  • The importance of the media in politics has contributed to the greater concentration on the individual holder of the office of PM rather than the government as a whole.
  • The growth in the importance of foreign and military affairs has contributed to a presidential 'fee' for the office of PM.
  • Finally, we turn to the concept of 'spatial leadership' Political systems are increasingly led by leaders who consider themsleves to be distinctly seperate from the rest of the government. 
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Definition of Presidentialism

A tendency for PM to behave in a manner similiar to a president, particularly a US president. It suggests the PM is claiming a seperate source of authority, is very much a policy leader, has their own sources of advice and is considered by the media to be the main spokesperson of the government. 

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Is the PM now effectively a president?

  • PM perform most of the functions of a head of state.
  • PM has extensive sources of advice. Downing Street increasingly resembles the presidential White House inner circle
  • The media tend to concentrate on the PM as personal spokesman for the government.
  • Foreign and military affairs have become more important. The PM dominates these.
  • The importance of spatial leadership in the UK increasingly looks like a president's style of leadership.
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Is the PM now effectively a president? (2)

  • The dominant role of the PM constantly changes, nothing is permanent. 
  • There has been a change to a more presidential style but in subtance the role of the MP hasn't changed.
  • There are important forces that will rein in PM power. Most of these forced are absent for a true president.
  • The PM may appear so but isn't actually head of state.
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Definition of Accountability

A political principle which suggests that an individual or an institution has to account for what it does and for its policies.

Thus, in the UK, MPs are accountable to their constituents and the government is accountable to Parliament.

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Definition of Civil service neutrality

The constitutional principle in the UK that civil servants must retain political neutrality, must give neutral advice to ministers and should not become involved in party policies.

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Definition of Open government

A principle and an aspiration that the processes of government should be made as open to the public and parliamentary scrutiny as is possible and reasonable. 

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