The Prime Minister and British Politics

The Prime Minister and British Politics

The Prime Minister is the most important person in British politics. The Prime Minister appoints his cabinet and makes the final decisions on major issues such as whether a referendum should be held on an issue such as the Euro or whether Britain should join a potential American attack on Iraq. The Prime Minister drives the Labour Party’s policies and is the person most likely to be held to account for those policies at election time.

There are those who believe that the personality of the Prime Minister is now almost as important as stated party policies. In the 2001 election, Tony Blair was challenged by the Tory leader William Hague. Blair was seen as confident, statesmanlike and authoritative while Hague was seen as nice but inexperienced and out of his depth. The personality issue has continued into 2002 with some seeing the new Tory leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, as being no better than Hague. The implication is that if people vote for personalities as much as issues, then the Tory leader has no chance of winning the next election whenever that is called

The Prime Minister is a working Member of Parliament. Tony Blair represents Sedgefield near Newcastle and he would be expected to fit into his work as Prime Minister, time for constituency issues. The Prime Minister may be head of the government but he is also seen as ‘primus inter pares’ – first among equals. Other ‘titles’ that have been used in the past to describe the Prime Minister are ‘keystone of the Cabinet arch’ and ‘a sun around which planets revolve’.

Traditionally, the Prime Minister has answered to the House of Commons once a week (depending on his diary) during Prime Minister’s Question Time. Recent changes to this whereby questions to be put to the Prime Minister are made known to him before the sessions have caused unease. American style question sessions with the press have also not been well received by the newspapers themselves.

The Prime Minister selects those politicians he will work most closely with – the Cabinet. Therefore, the Prime Minister has to be seen as the head of the executive branch of government. If a politician wants to make progress from backbench to Cabinet, that politician will have to impress the party leader, who will be either the Leader of the Opposition or Prime Minister. Those members of the Cabinet who do not succeed in their posts are dismissed during the delicately phrased ‘Cabinet re-shuffles’.

In Blair’s first term as Prime Minister probably the most famous fall from grace was the Health Minister, Harriet Harman, who was held responsible for failing to deliver the health reforms promised by Labour in the run-up to the 1997 election. More recently, Robin Cook has been re-shuffled by Blair to the post of Leader of the House after less than inspiring foreign ventures as Foreign Secretary – especially a trip to the Middle East. Blair chose the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to replace him. The Cabinet is expected to work with the man who selected them to this privileged position in British politics. Those that do not, pay the political price. Mo Mowlam, who served under Tony Blair most famously as Northern Ireland Secretary, claims that in her experience, Cabinet meetings were too dominated by the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet simply rubber stamped what Blair wanted to happen. "If that is what Tony wants, we should vote for it" was an alleged comment made by one member at a Cabinet meeting.

The Prime Minister does not only appoint his Cabinet. He has patronage elsewhere such as the appointment of junior ministers (who will go further politically only if they impress the Prime Minister), senior civil servants, bishops and judges. Such power allows the Prime Minister to appoint people into these positions if he is certain that they will support his policies and not present a challenge to his power. A recent slight change to this is the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate, the current archbishop of Wales, Dr. Rowan Williams. He has made it clear that he does not support any British involvement in an attack on Iraq unless it is backed by the United Nations, whereas some believe that Blair supports the Americans in an attack on one of the ‘axis-of evil’ nations.

The Prime Minister also chairs a number of select committees; at present the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee, the Constitutional Reform Committee, the Intelligence Services Committee and the Northern Ireland Committee. In these committees, policies may be determined; hence the Prime Minister has to be very influential in these committees.

Historically, decisions made by government were taken after committees had met. Clement Atlee had148 standing committees and another 313 existed for temporary issues between 1945 and 1951. This number of committees has been drastically reduced (in 1997 there were just 19) as the Prime Minister will come to a decision after meeting with the relevant head of government department whom he would have appointed and their advisors on whatever topic it is they are discussing.

This process streamlines the process of decision-making, as committees were becoming too big to manage. The committee that examined the whole issue of devolution had 19 members to it. However, members of these committees were usually elected members of the House – or a substantial number of them are – whereas advisors and the ‘special advisors’ that have been used by the Blair government are not elected officials but political appointments.

This has called into question the democratic nature of Prime Minister’s doing this. Are these advisors becoming more important than Cabinet ministers are? Labour MP’s have openly complained at the ease with which these advisors have access to senior government members but they, as duly elected MP’s, are not given the same access.

As early as 1964, the Labour MP Richard Crossman described the role of the Prime Minister as becoming more and more presidential in style. This has been a constant criticism of the current Blair government – that accepted conventions of government are being pushed to one side and replaced with a prime ministerial style of leadership where one man has huge powers regarding decision making. This was another complaint made by Mo Mowlan regarding the role she perceived Blair to be taking.

Another function of the Prime Minister is to represent the country abroad. The queen is Britain’s head of state, but the Prime Minister is Britain’s de facto representative abroad. The media avidly follows foreign visits by the Prime Minister.

To summarise:

The Prime Minister is

the leader of his party in the House of Commons the head of government he has the right to select his cabinet, hand out departmental positions, decide the agenda for cabinet meetings which he also chairs. he can dismiss ministers if this is required he directs and controls policy for the government he is the chief spokesman for the government he keeps the Queen informed of government decisions he exercises wide powers of patronage and appointments in the civil service, church and judiciary he can amalgamate or split government departments he represents the country abroad he decides the date for a general election within the five-year term he decided the timetable of government legislation in the House (though this has been delegated to the Leader of the House before)

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Prime Minister and British Politics". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2006. Web.






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