The prime minister and the core executive

The prime minister

  • the head of government
  • provides political leadership within the cabinet system & country
  • chairs cabinet, appoints ministers
  • leader of largest party in the Commons
  • Downing Street is their official residence
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Requirements of a prime minister

  • must be a member of parliament (until the late 19th century, they were usually a member of the Lords. It is now a constitutional convention that the PM comes from the Commons)
  • leader of political party that commands the support of their party. If they step down as leader, they relinquish the office of the prime minister (e.g.: Thatcher 1990 Conservative party leadership election)
  • majority in the House of Commons
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Majority, minority and coalition government


  • one party has an absolute majority of seats in the Commons and forms the government
  • government ministers are members of this party.


  • no party has an absolute majority of seats
  • party without majority forms a government but must try to secure support from other parties for key measures
  • government ministers are members of this party

Coalition government:

  • no party has an absolute majority of seats
  • two or more parties agree a deal to form a government
  • ministerial positions are shared between two or more parties
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Role of the prime minister

  • political leadership - decide the political direction taken by the government (its broad strategy and priorities)
  • national leadership - PM is predominant political figure and will provide national leadership in times of crisis. they are the communicator-in-chief for the government
  • appointing the government - they have the power of patronage and may appoint or dismiss ministers
  • chair cabinet - set the agenda and steer cabinet decisions. s/he also makes appointments & holds bilateral meetings with ministers
  • managing the executive - PM responsible for overall organisation of government. head of civil service.
  • represent the UK in international affairs - represent the UK in EU, international organisations and meetings with other leaders
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Powers of the prime minister

  • patronage
  • authority within the cabinet system
  • party leadership
  • public standing
  • policy-making role
  • the prime minister's office
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This is the power to appoint someone to an important position. This is not available to other cabinet ministers. Patronage powers have been diminished:

  • Judicial and ecclesiastical appointments - PM now plays no role in judicial appointments. This is done by an Independent Judiciary Committee. He also only has one name to approve for ecclesiastical appointments.
  • The honours system - the PM can now only accept a list presented by independent honours committees. This changed happened after the Blair government.
  • Life peers - Independent Appointments Commission makes recommendations on non-party Lords appointments now, not the prime minister
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Appointing cabinet ministers

  • this provides prime ministers a crucial advantage over their colleagues
  • in theory, a PM can create a cabinet in their own image. in practice, they lack a free hand in appointments. e.g.: 2010 coalition David Cameron forced to appoint five Lib Dems to his cabinet.
  • PM has to appoint senior party figures (who can be rivals for their job)
  • There must be a mix of different ideologies. This is necessary to gain the support of the whole party. e.g.: May's cabinet is a mixture of Leavers and Remainers (albeit there is a bias towards Remainers)
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Cabinet reshuffles

This is a series of changes to the personnel of the cabinet and the positions they occupy, instigated by the prime minister. May did this in Jan 2018.

  • PM decides the timing of a reshuffle but a sudden resignation can force an unwanted one
  • Coalition Agreement for Stability & Reform limits a prime minister's patronage powers (e.g.: allocation of positions was agreed between Cameron and Clegg)
  • reshuffles can backfire - it can raise questions about the PM's judgmenet, reveal cabinet divisions and highlight policy failings (e.g.: Macmillian's 1962 reshuffle)
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Authority in the cabinet system

The prime minister:

  • chairs cabinet meetings
  • manages agenda of cabinet meetings, determines frequency and length
  • directs and summarises discussions
  • creates cabinet committees and appoints members
  • holds bilateral meetings with ministers
  • appoints senior civil servants
  • organises structure of government

This gives prime ministers an advantage over cabinet ministers.

  • they can ensure that their favoured position prevails (but if a group of ministers promote an alternative viewpoint, this can be thwarted)
  • BUT: poor cabinet management weakens authority
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Setting the agenda

The PM can determine the agenda of cabinet meetings by:

  • controlling the information presented to ministers
  • keeping controversial issues off the agenda and dealing with them in cabinet committees or bilateral discussions
  • decide the chair and membership of cabinet committees where detailed policy work takes place

Bilateral: A meeting between the prime minister and the departmental minister in which policy is agreed

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Party leadership

  • There have been more incidents of backbench revolts which means that the PM cannot always rely on their support. e..g: revolts over Brexit bill
  • Party leadership strengthens the authority of PMs & ensures their legitimacy
  • Sudden removal of PM is unlikely because of the length and cost of leadership elections
  • Party support for its leader is conditional: e.g.: Thatcher forced out of Downing Street after failing to get enough support to win the 1990 leadership contest. Thatcher has a slim majority in the Commons and must battle against backbench revolts for fear of losing that small majority
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Public standing

  • PM has a high public profile
  • provides domestic political leadership
  • represents UK in international affairs e.g.:  May meeting Trump in Davos
  • communicator-in-chief for the government
  • opinion polls are important - when high, these can strengthen the PM's position and authority
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Policy-making input

  • PM has the licence to get involved in all kinds of issues: they are not confined to a specific field. 
  • plays an active role in setting objectives and directing policy in crucial areas
  • needs the backing of senior figures in these controversial matters
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The Prime Minister's Office

This is the group of senior civil servants that provide advice and support for the prime minister. They are based at 10 Downing Street. Two important aspects of their work are:

  • policy advice - offer advice & alternative views to those s/he gets from cabinet ministers. Since Blair, this has had an important role coordinating policy making and implementation across government
  • communications - presentation of government policy and the media focus on the prime minister. the current director of communications is Robbie Gibb
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Prime ministerial leadership style

  • this is critical
  • can consist of vision and political will
  • James Macgregor Burns' book Leadership (1978) identified three styles of leadership: laissez-faire leaders [hands-off approach to issues, likes to delegate decision-making responsibility], transactional leaders [favour collective decision making], transformational leaders [conviction politicians that seek to impose their own strong views]

Examples: Thatcher & Blair were transformational leaders. Major was a transactional one. May can be considered a transactional leader.

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Thatcher as a prime minister

  • less use of cabinet - detailed policy work done in cabinet committees or bilateral meetings with ministers
  • senior ministers like Nigel Lawson accused her of payingn greater attention to advisers than her ministers
  • formed a cabinet of ideological allies - by 1990, she lacked loyal allies
  • her issues stemmed from her ignoring ministers' concerns and bypassing cabinet
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Blair as prime minister

  • a more dominant prime minister than Major and Thatcher
  • conducted government business through bilaterla meetings (sofa government)
  • transformational leader
  • strengthened Prime Minister's Office 
  • rebellions by Labour MPs on Iraq and tuition fees
  • collegiality with chancellor Gordon Brown - commentators called this a 'dual monarchy' as Blair and Brown had their own spheres of influence and courts & met regularly to bargain over policy. this relationship came under strain over tuition fees and the European single currency
  • this relationship was one of mutual dependence: one could not maintain his position without the support of the other
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Cameron as prime minister

  • collegial style because coalition required regular negotiation between Conservatives and Lib Dems
  • good relationship with Clegg and Osborne
  • allowed ministers greater freedom to get on with their jobs
  • criticism: he made policy U-turns
  • coalition constrained powers of patronage and ability to dictate policy
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May as a prime minister

  • "there will be no sofa government"
  • trying to bring back consultation of ministers before decisions in response to world events
  • likely to focus on an issue until she has succeeded in actualising her political will
  • was the first Home Secretary to stand up to the police service and outdated and cosy practices
  • has used party chairship to help improve representation of women
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Is coalition government a significant constraint o

Is coalition government a significant constraint on the prime minister's power?


  • Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform sets the number of Lib Dem cabinet ministers - Cameron couldn't dismiss or reshuffle them without Clegg's approval
  • Coalition requires a more collective style of government. Key issues are discussed in cabinet to ensure agreement of both parties.
  • PM must manage tensions between Conservatives and Lib Dems as well as dissent within the Conservative Party.


  • Prime minister retains significant patronage powers
  • PM still determines overall direction of government policy
  • Coalition with Lib Dems esnured that Cameron had a healthy parliamentary majority
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Theories of executive power - cabinet government v

Cabinet government - concept created by Walter Baghetot (The English Consitution, 1867) executive power is vested in a cabinet whose members exercise collective responsibility rather than in a single office. the PM is 'primus inter pares' - first among equals --> he has an advantage over other ministers but cannot act unilaterally.

Prime minister government - PM is the dominant actor in the executive: they set the direction of government and make major decisions

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Theories of executive power - core executive model

  • power is shared between mutually dependent actors
  • PM needs support of cabinet ministers and officials to achieve objectives
  • PM's powers are not fixed and depend on other factors such as policy success, parliamentary majority and popularity
  • Devolution, EU membership and privatisation makes it difficult for PM to command policy
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Prime ministerial predominance

  • PM is predominant figure within core executive
  • The more institutional and perosnal powers the PM has, the more likely they are to be predominant
  • PM leads, does not command executive. He directs but does not control policy agenda
  • This theory was created by Richard Heffernan
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British presidency

Michael Foley argues that the office of the prime minister has become more presidential. Three trends are central to presidentialism.

  • personalised leadership - PM expected to be a dominant political figure that imposes his personal vision. media focus on prime minister. election victory considered personal mandate
  • public outreach - PM is communicator-in-chief for government. expectaiton to connect with popular mood and be the nation's spokesperson. PM supposed to represent public interest.
  • spatial leadership - distance between PM and his government/party. PM relies more on his inner circle of special advisors than cabinet. e.g.: the coalition government's quad
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Has there been a presidentialisation of the office


  • personalised leadership
  • PM's reliance on a close circle of senior ministers and advisors
  • spatial leadership strategically created by PM
  • media focus on PM
  • PMs have extra authority as party leaders


  • PM cannot command executive or control agenda
  • Senior ministers have their own circle of advisors too.
  • PM needs support of ministers to achieve his objectives
  • Party support is not unconditional.
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Criticisms of the presidential thesis

  • misrepresents nature of power within core executive
  • overstates the room for manouevre that the PM has
  • PM's power is constrained in coalition government
  • Ignores differences between US and UK political system. Counterargument: Foley's thesis does not state that the UK and US political systems are identical.
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Traditionally and constitutionally, UK executive power is supposed to be vested in a cabinet whose members exercise collective responsibility. However, its importance has diminished in the modern era. It now only plays a limited role in decision-making - important policy decisions are made elsewhere in the executive. It has been believed to join Walter Bagehot's 'dignified institutions' those that retain a symbolic role but have no real influence, but these views may be premature as Thatcher's resignation demonstrated that prime ministers who ignore their dependence on senior cabinet colleagues risk losing office.

Cabinet:The meeting of senior ministers and heads of government departments. Formally the key decision-making body in British government.

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Cabinet ministers

  • Cabinet is made up of senior ministers in the government
  • Average membership is 20
  • May: 5 cabinet ministers are women (Plus 4 women attend cabinet despite not being ministers). Cameron: Only 4, compared to 8 in 2006.
  • Most cabinet ministers are heads of government departments - not all departments get represented! The Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office have been well-represented in cabinet.
  • They must be MPs and are accountable to parliament
  • Most are drawn from the Commons. Exception is Baroness Evans who is the Leader of the House of Lords
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Cabinet meetings

  • Frequency & length of cabinet meetings has fallen since the 1950s - but May has been holding frequent meetings.
  • Under Cameron, some meetings were even held outside of London.
  • Agenda is settled in advance
  • Departmnet ministers introduce items
  • Relevant departmental ministers are given priority.
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Role of the cabinet

Cabinet system: The cabinet and its associated bodies

The Ministerial Code and Cabinet Manual sets out the role and functions of the cabinet:

  • register and ratify decisions taken elsewhere in the cabinet systems
  • discuss and decide on major issues
  • receive reports on key developments and determine government business in parliament
  • settle disputes between governmetn departments
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Register decisions

Many issues get decided at a lower level in cabinet committees, like in bilateral meetings or correspondence between departments  These are taken into cabinet as 'done deals'; cabinet then acts as a clearing house for policy and will either register or ratify decisions that were taken outside the meetings. Ministers are discouraged from reopening issues where a decision has already been reached; they also have little chance of changing a decision once the PM and responsible cabinet minister agree.

This ability of deciding policy is constrained by the infrequency of meetings, its size and the detailed nature policy.

  • most ministers are concerned wtih policy in their own department and don't have enough time or expertise to study policy in other departments - this curbs their influence
  • frequent turnover of ministers limits their impact
  • it's impractical and time-consuming to have detailed discussions over a range of issues - some need to be prioritised
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Discussing or deciding major issues

The cabinet is formally the supreme decision-making body in the UK government. However, they have become more advisory in recent years. For example, cabinet ministers were not given access to key papers about the Iraq invasion, according to the 2004 Butler Report. This meant that they couldn't "bring their political judgement and experience to bear", said Butler. Still, they can play a more active role in policy-making when these factors are present:

  • issues are particularly important/sensitive
  • rapid decision needed after major or unexpected developments
  • committees and departments cannot agree

Ministers can only advise and warn. The Prime Minister decides in the end. Government policy can be settled without cabinet discussion, especially when the Prime Minister does not want their views challenged.

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Reports and discussions

  • The cabinet hears reports on current events and policy changes to keep ministers in the loop.
  • This allows ministers to discuss policy and governmental priorities.
  • Opportunity for ministers to clarify or question policy

Cabinet meetings have a formal agenda that usually cover:

  • parliamentary business
  • economic and home affairs
  • foreign policy

The cabinet also has a formal role of timetabling governmental bills and ministerial statements.

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Settle disputes

  • if an issue cannot be settled in a committee or bilateral meeting, it is referred to the cabinet
  • example: disputes between departments and the Treasury over spending allocations
  • cabinet acts as an umpire and reaches a binding decision
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Cabinet committee

These are committees appointed by the prime minister to consider aspects of government business. They involve standing committees and ad hoc committees.

  • standing committees: committees that are permanent for the prime minister's term of office e.g.:The Coalition Committee co-chaired by Cameron and Clegg
  • ministerial subcommittee: a committee that reports to a standing committee
  • ad hoc committees: temporary committees set up to deal with a specific issue

The most important cabinet committees work on:

  • domestic affairs
  • economic affairs
  • national security
  • legislation
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Cabinet Office

This is a government department responsible for managing the civil service and supporting the cabinet system and the prime minister.

Key unit: Cabinet Secretariat which regulates and coordinates cabinet business

  • prepares agenda
  • calls meetings
  • coordinates work
  • current Cabinet Secretary: Jeremy Heywood. Since his appointment in 2012, the role has become a principal policy adviser to the prime minister
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Government ministers

  • more than 100 ministers in government
  • they are allocated positions in government departments


1. Senior ministers

  • they have the rank of secretary of state (e.g.: secretary of state for education)
  • sit in cabinet and head government departments

2. Ministers of state

  • they have specific policy roles in a department

3. Parliamentary private secretaries

  • unpaid assistants to ministers
  • do not have ministerial status
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Ministerial roles

1. Policy leadership

  • Has a crucial role in policy initiation and selection
  • Very few make dramatic changes to their policy framework, like Michael Howard

2. Represent departmental interests

  • negotiate for funding increases for their departments
  • they represent both he government and their department in EU meetings

3. Departmental management

  • set objectives
  • manage work
  • shape distribution of resources

4. Relations with parliament

  • steer their department's bills through parliament
  • they're accountable for decisions taken in their department and have to answer questions about them
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Collective responsibility

This is a core principle of collective government that means that the cabinet is a united body that is responsible as a group and must ensure three key principles:

1. Secrecy - Ministers mus not allow details of discussions in the cabinet to enter the public domain. This prevents differences of opinion being revealed.

2. Binding decisions - Once a decision is reached in the cabinet system, it's binding on all ministers regardless of whether they opposed it or not. Ministers who cannot accept this resign or get dismissed. Examples: Robin Cook 2003, James Purnell 2009

3. Confidence vote - The entire government must resign if it is defeated in a vote of confidence. The last time this happened was in 1979 with James Callaghan's Labour government.

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How has the convention of collective responsibilit

  • Prime ministers have suspended the convention to prevent resignations that could lead to a reshuffle.
  • Gordon Brown allowed ministers a free vote in three areas of a 2008 Human Fertilisation Bill
  • Ministers can leak information on cabinet discussions to the media - this happened in January 2018 concerning a meeting about Brexit
  • Ministers who have publically dissented have still kept their jobs (e.g.: Thatcher's Wets)
  • 2010 Lib Dem-Conservative coalition meant that Lib Dems were not bound by collective responsibility on some matters.
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Individual ministerial responsibility

Ministers are accountable to parliament for their conduct. This includes personal conduct and the conduct of their department.

RECENT EXAMPLE: Amber Rudd resigns after giving misleading information to cabinet.

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Grounds for resignation

  • Mistakes made within departments
  • Policy failure
  • Personal misconduct
  • Political pressure
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Ministers and civil servants

Civil servants: Officials employed in a civil capacity by the Crown, responsible for policy advice or implementation. Government departments are staffed by them.

Civil Service Code sets out the 4 standards for civil servants: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

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Distinguishing between ministers, civil servants a

Ministers: MPs and peers. make policy decisions. required to support government policy .accountable to parliament. bound by Ministerial Code. temporary.

Civil servants: officials appointed by the Crown. advise on policy options. politically neutral. anonymous. bound by Civil Service Code. permanent

Special advisers: political appointments made by ministers. advise on policy options. politically partisan. accountabe to ministers. code of conduct provides guidance on role. temporary

  • Both civil servants and special advisers provide advice on policy options, but civil servants are permanent whereas special advisers are temporary.
  • All three positions are bound by a different code of conduct.
  • Civil servants need to be neutral but special advisers are politically partisan in nature.
  • Special advisers and ministers are temporary. Civil servants are permanent.
  • Only civil servants are appointed by the Crown.
  • Only ministers are required to support government policy.
  • Special advisers are accountable to their ministers and ministers are accountable to parliament.
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Special advisers and spin doctors

  • Special advisers are political appointments employed as temporary civil servants. They are political in nature, unlike the neutral stance civil servants are expected to assume.
  • Spin doctors are special advisers employed to promote the image of the minister and their policy in the media.
  • These are used because of concerns in the 1970s and 1980s that civil servants were becoming too powerful.
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Principles of the civil service

The civil service is a bureaucracy that has to operate according to a set of procedures. It traditionally works according to these four principles:

  • Impartiality: Civil servants serve the Crown, not the government of the day. They are expected to be politically neutral.
  • Anonymity: Individual civil servants aren't supposed to be identified as the author of advice to ministers. They must sign the Official Secrets Act to ensure this.
  • Permanence: Civil servants keep their position regardless of changes in government.
  • Meritocracy: Civil servants aren't political appointments - they are selected through competitive exams and interviews. They are highly skilled generalists.
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Reforms to the civil service

  • The policy-making and policy implementation roles of the civil service were separated and delegated to executive agencies that operate at adistance from government departments. A chief executive manages their daily operations.
  • More outsiders have been recruited as civil servants.
  • The size of the civil service has been reduced.
  • Jobs have been relocated outside of London.
  • Attempts to diversify civil servants which were predominately white, middle-class and male.
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Concerns about the reforms

  • separation of the policy advice and implementation role has caused fragmentation and a lack of co-ordination
  • critics argue that new managerial pracitces have eroded the public service ethos of the civil service
  • some notable failures of executive agencies. e.g.: Child Support Agency
  • government believed to have exerted too much political pressure on the civil service
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Does the civil service play a crucial role in poli


  • Senior civil servants are able to promote and develop their own political ethos because they have key roles in departments
  • Civil servants have expertise, resources and relationships that aren't available to ministers and special advisers
  • Civil servants shape government policy by defining whic options and logistically and economically feasible
  • They are key actors in policy implementation which is crucial to the success of a given policy


  • Ministers are increasingly picking special advisers over civil servants for policy advice
  • They spend more time managing departments, not dealing with policy
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