There are limits to the powers of a Prime Minister despite what would appear to be their exulted position within British Politics. The Prime Minister does have many powers but probably the one great limit to these powers comes from the party he represents. 

If a Prime Minister loses the support from his party’s back-benchers, his position becomes very weak. This happened to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In one speech made in the House of Commons, Geoffrey Howe, a former Cabinet colleague of Thatcher’s, started the process that lead to an effective revolt against her style of leadership and her ultimate resignation as Prime Minister in 1990. John Major also experienced a revolt over his support for Britain developing greater links with Europe. He is alleged to have referred to those Cabinet colleagues who did not support his stance on Europe as “bastards”. By 1997, when Major called a general election, the party was in such disarray that in suffered in biggest electoral defeat in recent history.

The Labour Party has a vast Parliamentary majority and has the knowledge that they can push through Parliament policies promised at the 2001 election with relative ease. However, Blair has to respect that his position as party leader is dependent on maintaining support amongst the Labour MP back-benchers. If he loses this, he will lose the authority required by a party leader and his hopes of leading the party without the support of that party will be minimal. As Prime Minister, such a position would be untenable. Those back-benchers who fail to support his style of leadership could put up a ‘stalking horse’ candidate in an election contest for party leadership. Though Blair would win this contest (probably with some ease) it would be damaging for the party as the start of any rebellion might prove difficult to contain and it might gain an unstoppable momentum. An authoritative leadership of the party is a vital component for a Prime Minister to be successful and a Prime Minister would always keep a close eye on what is said by his party’s back-bench MP’s.

Another factor that limits a Prime Minister’s power is the fact that he is seen to be publicly responsible for any major mishap that occurs during his time in power. The American President, Richard Nixon had a plaque on his desk which stated “the buck stops here”. As the Prime Minister is the person in charge, the buck stops with him. When things go well, the Prime Minister can bath in the glory but the opposite is also true. As the most known member of the government, it is he that the public hold to be accountable when things go wrong. Anthony Eden was held responsible for the Suez episode in 1956; Edward Heath was seen as the person responsible for the 1974 miners strike when a three-day working week was introduced; Margaret Thatcher was held responsible for the problems associated with the Poll Tax etc. Tony Blair has been accused of being too friendly with America’s President Bush and not being critical enough of the President’s foreign policy designs. If an attack on Iraq occurs and Britain is involved, a success will greatly benefit the Prime Minister’s position, whereas a perceived failure may well weaken his position so that a ‘stalking horse’ candidate for a challenge to Blair’s leadership of the party may well take on momentum. 

The potential for a revolt in the Cabinet – though historically rare – is another limitation on a Prime Minister. Membership of the Cabinet depends on the Prime Minister and it would be rare for a politician to ‘bite the hand that feeds him’. However, John Major did experience trouble with his Cabinet and Tony Blair has been accused of by-passing his Cabinet for the sake of a ‘kitchen cabinet’ and the advice of “special advisors”. The political relationship he has with his chancellor, Gordon Brown, has been dissected by the media and Blair will be aware that it was a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, who started the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. 

The House of Lords can politically limit what the Prime Minister pushes through via the Commons. However, with the Lords in a state of flux at present, it is difficult to assess to what extent the new version of the Lords will be able to limit the power of the government.

The European Commission certainly has the power the part-shape government policy by imposing on member states policies that may not have been stated in the Labour Party’s election manifesto in 2001. Two recent examples of the power of the European Union over the government are:

to protect the environment, all old fridges now have to be disposed of properly and cannot be ‘re-cycled’ i.e. given to a new owner via a charity shop etc. Britain now faces the embarrassment of a ‘fridge mountain’ which may be disposed of by exporting them to France for proper re-cycling. This correct disposal of fridges will shortly be extended to all electrical goods throughout the Union. The Prime Minister can do nothing about this as Britain signed up to the European Union and in 1972 put European Law above British law with the signing of the European Communities Act which was upheld by the Lords in 1991 with the Factortame Case.  

In August 2002, the Commission has stated that it wants Britain brought into line with the rest of the EU member states over cyclists. In the EU any car driver involved in a crash with a cyclist is automatically held responsible regardless of the part played by the cyclist. It has been estimated by insurers, that this will increase the annual cost of insuring a car in Britain by £50 to cover legal cases involving cars and cyclists. Again, the Prime Minister will be able to do little over this even though it is likely to prove les than popular.

A Prime Minister may also feel it necessary to respond to a pressure group. In 1997, many people felt that the Labour Party made its position clear on fox hunting – that it could not be tolerated in a civilised society. Having won the 1997 election, it was believed that legal steps would be taken to outlaw fox hunting. That lead to the creation of the Countryside Alliance which is a well funded pressure group dedicated to the maintenance of a traditional country life which includes the right to hunt foxes. At present, in August 2002, fox hunting is still legal and the arguments have got bogged down into allowing licensed hunts, a free Commons vote etc. The Countryside Alliance has already organised one very large demonstration in London and has organised another for September 2002. No Prime Minister would admit that their policies are shaped by un-elected pressure groups but it is clear that in this case, the impact of the Countryside Alliance has been marked.

Though the Prime Minister has a great deal of political power, this power is also balanced by the fact that there are limitations to that power. While a Prime Minister has the backing of his party, his position is secure; if he loses that support, then his position becomes very vulnerable. Any Prime Minister would always ensure that he knows what the opinions of the back-benchers are.

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