The powers of the Prime Minister within the British political structure have developed in recent years to such an extent that some political analyst now refer to Britain as having a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government.
The Prime Minister selects his own Cabinet and he will select those people who:
Have ability Have demonstrated good party loyalty Have clearly demonstrated loyalty to the Prime Minister himself
Those Cabinet members who do not ‘come up to scratch’ within their department will be removed from the Cabinet by the Prime Minister or ‘reshuffled’ to another position within the Cabinet – almost certainly at a lower level. Any senior Cabinet position brings with it certain rewards – chauffeured cars; a central London government house or a country weekend retreat such as Dorneywood; a much greater opportunity for overseas travel; a much higher salary etc. Therefore, those MP’s who are selected for a Cabinet post will be expected to be suitably loyal to the Prime Minister who has put them in this position.
Some claim that by doing this, the Prime Minister surrounds himself with ‘yes’ people – those who simply accept the wishes of the Prime Minister and rarely get involved in robust discussions at Cabinet meetings. This was a major complaint of Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She claims that Cabinet meetings she attended – the agenda of which is drawn up by the Prime Minister – were no more than sessions where Blair’s policy beliefs were supported.
The Prime Minister himself does not have any departmental responsibilities. Therefore, in theory, he does have more time to spend in maintaining control he has over his party.
By controlling influential committees, the Prime Minister can also ensure that he drives the policies of these committees.
The Prime Minister also has control over the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is headed by the Cabinet Secretary who is also head of the Civil Service. He has to work very closely with the Prime Minister. As senior positions within the Civil Service are appointed by the Prime Minister, it is likely that those who aspire to be senior civil servants will do little to tarnish their reputation with regards to their relationship to the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister also has his own Prime Minister’s Office based at 10, Downing Street. This is made up of civil servants, political advisors, party political supporters from business, trade unions etc and ‘spin doctors’. How much this has influence over a Prime Minister is difficult to assess but some have said that the current Head of Communications at 10, Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, has too much of a ready access to the Prime Minister, and more influence than the Cabinet.
Harold Wilson (Labour Prime Minister 1964-66; 1966-1970; 1974-76) was famed for his so-called ‘Kitchen Cabinets’ whereby a few favourites met to discuss policy issues and by-passed and input by the Cabinet ironically selected by Wilson. Margaret Thatcher was also in favour of using small groups of advisors and Cabinet members and thus by-passed what were perceived to be the ‘proper’ ways of doing things. It is said that her decision to ban trade unions at GCHQ in Cheltenham in 1984, was the result of a meeting between such a small group but a meeting that by-passed the convention of Cabinet collective decision making.
Blair has been accused of doing this – using a small group of people to discuss policy matters – but also of having a compliant Cabinet. Therefore, when it comes to the Cabinet to discuss already discussed policy issues, some political analysts argue, that the policy will be passed but the process of Cabinet discussion will have taken place.
The Prime Minister can also be influenced by pressure groups that he has sympathy with. This can also help in policy issues and can also lead to the role of the Cabinet being by-passed. Margaret Thatcher was sympathetic to the Adam Smith Institute while Tony Blair is said to be influenced by Demos.
The issue of whether small groups help to formulate government policy is important. If it is true that this happens (and no Prime Minister would admit to this) then it must question the whole democratic approach to decision making. Pressure groups, support groups, individuals etc. are not elected to government by the people whereas the Cabinet, as working MP’s, have gone through the electoral process.
Some examples of recent events whereby important decisions were made by a small group of people include:
The devaluation of the pound in 1967 by Harold Wilson; The Falklands conflict of 1982 when the Cabinet was suspended by Margaret Thatcher and replaced by a ‘War Cabinet’; The Gulf War of 1991 when John Major worked with a ‘War Cabinet’ The decision to allow tobacco advertising at Formula One events by Tony Blair
Tony Blair has been accused of putting ‘yes’ people in positions of responsibility. Some of the media have accused him of “control freakery” and having a desire to create a “culture of cronyism”.