The president of America is frequently referred to as the world’s most powerful person. However, the federalstructure of America has put restraints on the power of the president that do not occur in Great Britain, lead by a Prime Minister. The powers of Congress and the Supreme Court are used as a balance to the power a president might accrue in his time in office. The Constitution of America ties the president down as to what he can and cannot do. This codified document can only be changed by the Supreme Court. Such a constraint does not exist in Britain though the input of the European Court on formulating some British legislation is difficult to assess but does not come into the same league as the power that that the Supreme Court of America has.
The general powers exercised by a British Prime Minister include:
the power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss cabinet ministers
the power to create new peers to the House of Lords
the power to give out honours
the power to appoint top civil servants, ambassadors, bishops and judges
the power to determine government business and Cabinet discussions/agendas
the power to withhold information from the Houses of Parliament if deemed necessary
the power to use the media via a lobby system
the power to terminate the life of a government and call a general election
The Prime Minister clearly has an abundance of powers at his disposal. Sir Richard Crossman wrote that :
The PM’s position as leader of the majority party in the House of Commons together with his position as head of government, thus combining legislative and executive powers, amounts to an “immense accretion of power.”
Many of the PM’s powers derive from the prerogative powers of the Monarch. These extensive powers are wielded independently of Parliament and effectively give every PM the power of a Head of State. These powers include the right to appoint ministers, to dissolve Parliament and so set the timing for a general election, to be in charge of the armed forces and the security services, to negotiate treaties and other diplomatic agreements and to summon and chair Cabinet meetings. The proponents of Prime Ministerial government postulate that the Cabinet is effectively the tool of the PM and that, in practice, government policy has long ceased to be decided at Cabinet meetings. PM’s use Cabinet Committees (the PM chairs several of these), bilateral meetings with individual ministers, the No. 10 Policy Unit, the Cabinet Office, Think Tanks and ‘kitchen cabinets’ of personal aides and advisers, to shape policy and present it to the Cabinet. The Cabinet as a collective body, it has been argued, has been reduced to a clearing house and ratifier of decisions already taken.
Unlike their ministerial colleagues, the PM is not tied up with a particular department and is ultimately responsible for co-ordinating government policy across the board. The PM’s potential impact on policy-making is therefore enormous and a pro-active PM like Mrs. Thatcher intervened extensively in departments and left her personal imprint on an array of policies from local government, education to privitisation.
This suggests that the PM can act like a virtual autocrat. However, this is not so as there are constraints on his power. Though a PM’s power in the Cabinet is great, he cannot get himself into a situation whereby he is seen to surround himself with ‘nodding donkeys’. The party he leads will not tolerate this and every five years (maximum) the PM and the party have to present themselves to the country who will vote on their record of government. A PM who is seen to be going against the British tradition of democratic government whereby the party is all-inclusive at Westminster will lose out when the party abandons its support for him. Mrs. Thatcher lost the support of both her Cabinet and the Conservative Party when she was seen as being too over-bearing and out of touch. A PM who loses support from his own party is doomed to failure even if he does have the power to reward loyalty. The current PM, Tony Blair, leads a party with a Parliamentary majority second to none. On paper, it would appear that his power as PM is unassailable. However, all he needs to do to sow the seeds of his own political downfall is to lose the support of those Labour MP’s at Westminster. In this sense, the party have the power not the PM. Tony Blair has yet to have a serious challenge to his position as party leader. What happens should this occur?
Many in the current Labour Party are concerned about Tony Blair’s apparent desire to make decisions by himself or with a small non-elected clique thus by-passing both the Cabinet and Westminster. A former Cabinet colleague, Mo Mowlam, has made these accusations and has also stated her belief that Cabinet meetings are a farce as they are no more than sessions whereby Blair is agreed to. If this is the case, what happens when the Labour Party tires of this?
During the current fight against terrorism, President Bush has held frequent meetings with Cabinetcolleagues, and those who air a belief that an American attack on Iraq – without an agreement from the UN Security Council – is fraught with danger, are seemingly allowed to do so. Colin Powell has been reported as voicing his concerns and the media have reported this accordingly. The President has his views while others close to him express theirs. Congress has also had an input with the Senate approving a $34.4 billion rise in defence spending to assist in the president’s campaign against terrorism. The House of Commons, on the other hand, has frequently complained that it is being side-lined by not having a full debate about the issue. Therefore, the ability and opportunity for politicians to voice opposition to the PM’s policies regarding this foreign policy issue are very limited. Blair has been accused of developing presidential powers.
However, the powers of the president of America are limited by Article II of the Constitution. There are many things the president can do but there are also many things that he cannot do. The House of Commons at Westminster does not formulate policy; it discusses proposed legislation and votes on them. Congress, however, has been given very real powers by the Constitution, the likes of which are not seen in Great Britain. The Senate can remove the president from office – the president cannot remove a Senator; the Senate ratifies the president’s Cabinet; all financial issues have to start in the House of Representatives and Congress can reject a president’s proposed budget. These clearly limit the power of a president.
In Britain, the Chancellor’s budget is introduced regardless of what Parliament thinks. With the exception of a party revolt, the party in power cannot remove a PM