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1967 to 1968 (but with a Secretary of State in direct charge of the department).
In any event the Prime Minister has a general authority to intervene in any
sphere of government and often takes a leading role in foreign relations, dealing
directly with other heads of government. (The Prime Minister represents the
United Kingdom on the European Council, which gives strategic leadership to
the European Union: see chapter 5.) Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister took a close
and assertive interest in the development of economic policy.
John Mackintosh wrote in 1962 that the description of British government
simply as ˜Cabinet government™ had become misleading, for ˜the country is
governed by the Prime Minister™ (The British Cabinet (1st edn 1962), p 451; see
also the 3rd edn 1977, ch 20). The description had been made famous by Sir Ivor
Jennings™ pioneering study, Cabinet Government (1936). Richard Crossman
agreed with, and developed, this thesis in vivid manner in Inside View (1972),
pp 62“7. Crossman listed the principal conventional powers wielded by a Prime
Minister which enabled him to exert ˜when he is successful, a dominating
personal control™. In particular, the Prime Minister (1) appointed ministers and
could sack any minister at any time; (2) decided the agenda of the Cabinet;
(3) decided on the organisation and membership of Cabinet committees and
the issues to be put to them; (4) approved appointments of senior civil servants
and certain appointments made by ministers to high public o¬ce; (5) had
personal control of government publicity. The powers identi¬ed by Crossman
remain in the Prime Minister™s hands at the present day. The list can be
extended, for instance to include powers to change the structure of government
departments and to bring about a dissolution of Parliament by request to the
Sovereign. (See also Crossman™s ˜Introduction™ to Walter Bagehot, The English
Constitution (2nd edn 1964) and note Geo¬rey Marshall™s critical comments on
Crossman™s views [1991] PL 1.)
Another former Cabinet minister, Mr Tony Benn, emphasised the ˜immense
concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister™, and the need to
bring it under greater democratic control (Arguments for Democracy (1981),
ch 2). In The Hidden Wiring (1996), pp 86“90, Peter Hennessy lists some ¬fty
functions and powers of the Prime Minister, with a chilling ¬nal item:

Symbolically enough, the last act a British Prime Minister would take is not a matter for the
Cabinet but one for the PM alone. The Polaris or Trident missile would erupt from the Atlantic
thanks to a prime ministerial decision made by the Premier under the Royal Prerogative in
the name of the Queen.

The argument of prime-ministerial dominance seemed to be con¬rmed by
the premiership of Mrs Thatcher, who became Prime Minister in 1979 with the
determination to head a ˜conviction government™ ¬rmly committed to a range
of policies on which she herself held strong views. Initially she was compelled
to conciliate and compromise in a Cabinet in which those who shared her
political outlook were in a minority, but in 1981 she made changes in her
387 Crown and government


ministerial team so as to bring about ˜a major shift in the balance of power
within the Cabinet™ in her favour (A King (ed), The British Prime Minister
(2nd edn 1985), p 105). Moreover by displacing some important decision-
making to informal, ad hoc groups of ministers convened by herself she
diminished the role of Cabinet, and she intervened more frequently and
assertively than most premiers in the business of departmental ministers and in
relation to the appointment of senior civil servants. This is not to say that
prime-ministerial powers increased under Mrs Thatcher, but she exerted the
available powers to the full, so demonstrating the dominant authority that can
be wielded by a Prime Minister who has a secure political base, a clearly envis-
aged set of political objectives, single-mindedly pursued, and a determination
to act in a leadership role rather than foster consensus.
Michael Foley, in The Rise of the British Presidency (1993), a wide-ranging
study of the premiership (in particular that of Mrs Thatcher), discerned
profound and lasting changes in the political system which had transformed the
Prime Minister™s position. He concluded (p 263) that:

it would be no exaggeration to assert that what this country has witnessed over the last
generation has been the growing emergence of a British presidency.

On the other hand even Mrs Thatcher failed on occasion to get her way, as in
June 1989, when she was obliged to agree to terms of entry to the Exchange Rate
Mechanism of the European Monetary System, under threats of resignation
from the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary. Moreover the resignation of
Mrs Thatcher in 1990 demonstrated the limits of prime-ministerial power. She
survived, initially, resignations of senior Cabinet ministers provoked by her
ideologically driven policies and authoritarian style of government (charac-
terised by Hugo Young as a ˜marked indi¬erence to the normal protocols of
collective responsibility™: One of Us (1993 edn), p 196); but when her leadership
came to be seen as damaging to her party™s electoral prospects, the support of
her ministerial colleagues ebbed away and a party coup brought about her
downfall. (See Alderman and Carter, ˜A very Tory coup: the ousting of
Mrs Thatcher™ (1991) 41 Parliamentary Affairs 125; Brazier, ˜The downfall of
Margaret Thatcher™ (1991) 54 MLR 471.)
Mrs Thatcher™s successor, Mr John Major, was of a conciliatory disposition
and, as head of a refractory ministerial team, practised a collegial style of gov-
ernance, not characterised by strong leadership. With Mr Tony Blair there has
been a reversion to a ˜command and control™ premiership (see Peter Hennessy,
The Prime Minister (2000), ch 18), with centralised and informal processes of
decision-making tending to displace collective discussion in Cabinet and
Cabinet committees. The dominance of Mr Blair and his preference for doing
business in small, informal groups of ministers, o¬cials and policy advisers
were evident in the period leading up to and during the Iraq con¬‚ict of 2003
(see Hennessy, ˜Informality and circumscription: the Blair style of government
388 British Government and the Constitution


in war and peace™ (2005) 76 Political Quarterly 3). Traditional procedures of col-
lective decision-making may seem to have been displaced by a style of govern-
ment wryly described by Hennessy as ˜sessions on the sofa in the Prime
Minister™s study™: (2005) 58 Parliamentary Affairs 6, 10. (See further C Foster,
British Government in Crisis (2005), ch 12.) As evidence of strengthened prime-
ministerial control under Mr Blair, commentators have cited a new paragraph
88 (now 9.2) of the Ministerial Code, giving greater precision and emphasis to
a previous, unformalised practice:

In order to ensure the effective presentation of government policy, all major interviews and
media appearances, both print and broadcast, should be agreed with the No 10 Press Office
before any commitments are entered into. The policy content of all major speeches, press
releases and new policy initiatives should be cleared in good time with the No 10 Private
Office. The timing and form of announcements should be cleared with the No 10 Strategic
Communications Unit.

(See further Amy Baker, Prime Ministers and the Rule Book (2000), pp 96“8.)

James Barber, The Prime Minister since 1945 (1991), pp 130“3

The debate on the Prime Minister™s power continues and will continue because no absolute
conclusions can be drawn. The available evidence is always partial, open to different inter-
pretations and subject to normative judgements (what we believe ˜ought to be™). The bold
lines of the debate between the advocates of the presidential and chairmanship approaches
have advantages, but such approaches can undervalue the shifting pattern of behaviour and
the ups and downs of political life, not just between different Prime Ministers but in the
experience of each Prime Minister. Three main factors are involved: first the constitutional
and political frameworks in which Prime Ministers operate; second, the circumstances that
they face; and third, their personality and personal qualities.

The constitutional and political frameworks, Barber reminds us, ˜are built on
precedent and convention™. These change only slowly and Prime Ministers ˜have
to work within the context created by Cabinet and parliamentary government™.
The circumstances that face a Prime Minister, on the other hand, ˜are constantly
changing and are unpredictable™, while the personal qualities ˜vary markedly
between Prime Ministers™:

By putting the three factors together “ constitutional and political frameworks, circumstance
and personality “ the picture that emerges is one of fluctuating powers, whereby at some
times a Prime Minister may appear to have a presidential-like position, whereas at others
he/she is subject to obvious constraints.

Shifts in prime-ministerial authority and style justify Peter Hennessy™s remark
that the premiership is ˜a personally shaped instrument™ (The Prime Minister
389 Crown and government


(2000), p 15). On the other hand, Graham Allen MP is persuaded that the pre-
miership has evolved, by an irrevocable accretion of power, into a United
Kingdom Presidency “ an evolution which he does not decry, while arguing for
the need to develop means to check and legitimise the exercise of presidential
powers (The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest about the UK Presidency (2003)).
Martin Smith sees the question as one of ˜power dependency™: ˜Ministers have
resources and therefore the exercise of prime ministerial power depends on the
support of ministers™.


Martin Smith, ˜Interpreting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher:
power dependence and the core executive™, in R Rhodes and
P Dunleavy (eds), Prime Minister, Cabinet and Core Executive (1995),
pp 109“10, 123“4

Both Prime Minister and cabinet have resources. The Prime Minister has patronage, the
authority to intervene in key policy areas and the ability to direct resources. Ministers have
the responsibility, knowledge and administrative capabilities to develop policies in their own
particular areas. Ministers, particularly if they are senior, will have their own political author-
ity. To an extent resources derive from each other. The Prime Minister™s authority derives from
the cabinet, the ministers™ position is determined by the Prime Minister. To achieve goals
they exchange resources; they need each other. There are frequently coalitions between the
Prime Minister and senior ministers, particularly the chancellor, and this coalition can set the
framework for the overall determination of policy and so to an extent ˜regulate the process
of exchange™. Finally it is clear that the relative power of actors is highly variable.
As a consequence the power of the Prime Minister and the cabinet is not fixed but varies
according to the resources available, the rules of the game, administrative ability, political
support, political strategies, relationships within the core executive and external circum-
stances. After winning an election, the Prime Minister has the clear support of voters and
MPs and so has greater freedom to use resources than at times of poor polls and economic
problems. However the Prime Minister™s power will also vary according to the issue in
question. In certain issue areas the Prime Minister might have the authority to intervene but
if it is a policy area in the remit of a minister with high authority and popular support the
influence of the Prime Minister might be less. For example, after the 1987 election Margaret
Thatcher had limited ability to intervene in economic policy because Nigel Lawson was seen
as a very successful chancellor by Conservative MPs. Wherever the Prime Minister intervenes
he or she must weigh up the costs of intervention and a minister must assess the cost of
resistance . . . British government is not cabinet government or prime ministerial govern-
ment. Cabinets and Prime Ministers act within the context of mutual dependence based on
the exchange of resources with each other and with other actors and institutions within the
core executive. A Prime Minister can only be dominant with the support or acquiescence of
cabinet and attempts at dominance without this support undermine the relationships of
dependence. The power of the Prime Minister varies greatly according to the issues, the
external circumstances and the resources of other actors within the core executive.
390 British Government and the Constitution


These arguments are more fully developed in M Smith, The Core Executive in
Britain (1999), ch 4 and by the same author in R Rhodes (ed), Transforming
British Government, vol 1 (2000), ch 2. See too He¬ernan, ˜Prime ministerial
dominance? Core executive politics in the UK™ (2003) 5 British Journal of Politics
and International Relations 347. The authority of Mr Blair as Prime Minister
has been tempered, Peter Hennessy suggests, by the stature in his administra-
tion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Gordon Brown, such that the
government has been run by a duopoly of collaborating powers (˜Rulers
and servants of the state: the Blair style of government 1997“2004™ (2005)
58 Parliamentary Affairs 6). See further on these issues below, pp 397“400.
(See also Richard Rose, The Paradox of Power: The Prime Minister in
a Shrinking World (2000).)

(i) The Prime Minister™s office
Cabinet government assumes a collective leadership of ministers, even if one of
their number is primus inter pares. This indeed is the basis of the ˜collective
responsibility™ of ministers to Parliament. Some maintain that the collective
leadership of Cabinet government, in accommodating the views of di¬erent
ministers through bargain and compromise, cramps decision-making and
results in makeshift policies. For instance, Peter Riddell, citing a former Cabinet
Secretary™s discovery of ˜the hole in the centre of government™, says that the hole
˜results from the strength, and vested interests, of individual departments and
the increasing load on Prime Ministers that inhibits a strategic view™ (The Times,
20 April 1998). This has led to arguments for strengthened power at the centre,
with more resources of information, policy analysis and advice being made
available to the Prime Minister to assist him or her in developing the general
strategy of the government.
At the centre of government is the Cabinet O¬ce. Its head (under the Minister
for the Cabinet O¬ce) is the Cabinet Secretary, Britain™s most senior civil servant,
who reports to the Prime Minister and is his principal o¬cial adviser. Although
the O¬ce works for the Cabinet as a whole it has a particular responsibility to
˜support the Prime Minister in leading the Government™ (Cabinet Of¬ce
Departmental Report 2005, Cm 6543, p 31; Cabinet Of¬ce Annual Report, HC 1190
of 2003“04, paras 9“11). Peter Madgwick saw this dual role of the Cabinet O¬ce
as a ˜central ambiguity of British government™: British Government: the Central
Executive Territory (1991), p 101; while Peter Hennessy has drawn attention to an
˜ever closer fusion™ between the Prime Minister™s O¬ce and an expanded Cabinet
O¬ce under the Blair Government: The Prime Minister (2000), p 516.
The Prime Minister™s O¬ce has been reorganised and substantially enlarged
under Mr Blair. Sta¬ed by civil servants and special advisers (see below) and
headed by a Chief of Sta¬, it is closely linked with the Cabinet O¬ce to provide
a powerful motor at the centre of government. The former Private O¬ce and
the Policy Unit in No 10 were merged in 2001 as an integrated Policy Directorate
covering domestic and economic policy. Advice to the Prime Minister on
European Union and foreign a¬airs is provided by the European and Foreign
391 Crown and government


Policy Advisers™ O¬ce, supported by Secretariats in the Cabinet O¬ce.
A Delivery Unit based in the Cabinet O¬ce reports to the Prime Minister and
its ˜overriding mission™ is to achieve the Prime Minister™s objectives in such
˜priority areas™ as health, education, crime, asylum and transport. The Prime
Minister is also supported by a Press O¬ce, which manages his relations with
the media, and a Strategic Communications Unit for advice on the presentation
of policy. Party political matters are handled by the Director of Political
Operations, who is paid by the Labour Party.
These continually expanded resources are still by no means comparable with
those of a government department, and in arguing for a strengthened support
system some have called for the establishment of a Prime Minister™s depart-
ment. On the other hand Sir Douglas Wass, a former Joint Head of the Home
Civil Service, was unconvinced. In his opinion the fact that it is the Cabinet, and
not the Prime Minister alone, that has the power to take major policy decisions
˜has provided us with a valuable constitutional check™, and he believed that
it would be inconsistent with the principle of collective responsibility and a
signi¬cant step towards a ˜presidential™ form of government for the Prime
Minister to be given ˜the responsibility and the means to co-ordinate policy,
to order priorities and to challenge in detail the proposals of individual
departments™ (Government and the Governed (1984), pp 32“4). Similarly,
George Jones argued against such a ˜major constitutional change™, which would
˜shift responsibility from ministers and the cabinet to the Prime Minister™ and
undermine collective cabinet government: Jones, ˜The United Kingdom™, in
W Plowden (ed), Advising the Rulers (1987), pp 63“4.
The model of collective, ˜ministerial™ government favoured by these authors
has undoubtedly undergone a progressive shift to a more directive style of
governance. While there is no present proposal to establish a Prime Minister™s
Department, evolutionary developments at the centre have provided the Prime
Minister with more powerful instruments for the development, coordination
and presentation of policy: a Prime Minister™s department in all but name?
(See further Weller, ˜Do Prime Ministers™ Departments really create problems?™
(1983) 61 Pub Adm 59; the rejoinder by Jones, ibid, p 79; Lord Hunt in W Plowden

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