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Lecture by Peter Leyland The British Prime Minister

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2 Lecture by Peter Leyland The British Prime Minister
Origins of the office How the Prime Minister is appointed The Powers of the PM and the rise of 10 Downing Street PM, Cabinet and the convention of collective cabinet responsibility The downfall of Mrs Thatcher as PM The PM and the concept of ‘Elective dictatorship’

3 English Bill of Rights William III and Mary II offered the throne by Parliament in 1689 but with strict conditions attached: No army could be raised without parliamentary approval; Taxation required parliamentary approval; no special courts for political ends; freedom of petition guaranteed; free elections and regular parliaments; freedom of speech inside Parliament; protestant monarchy guaranteed, reinforced by Act of Settlement 1701. Nothing on PM because no such office existed.



6 Origins of Prime Ministerial Government
British Prime Minister emerged after the introduction of the Hanoverian monarchy. George I spoke no English and his son, George II had only limited command of the language. The result was that the affairs of government were increasingly conducted by the king’s ministers. These ministers had to be members of parliament, answerable to Parliament. Most prominent among these was the First Lord of the Treasury, referred to as Prime Minister. Sir Robert Walpole recognised as first modern PM.

7 Gladstone and Disreali

8 PM party and policy It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that government assumed a prominent role in domestic policy. Empire, trade and foreign policy were fundamental concerns for PMs. During the 19th century PMs frequently ran the country from the House of Lords e.g. Lord Liverpool, Duke of Wellington, Melbourne, Russell, Palmerston, Salisbury. Gladstone and Disreali can be regarded as modernisers associated with the formation of the Liberal Party and Conservative Party, electoral reform and improving the efficiency of government. Government assumed responsibility for aspects of public health and education.

9 PM as leader of a democratic state
PM emerged as party leader in Parliament rather than as popular leader. House of Lords represented the peers of the realm. Mainly landowners with hereditary titles (barons, viscounts, earls, dukes etc), plus the church (archbishops and bishops). House of Commons elected but until 1832 the distribution of seats was based on medieval centres of population recognised by Royal Charter. Many large cities and towns had no representation in Parliament. Bribery and corruption common place and no secret ballot. Reform Act 1918 gave adult men the vote and women over 30 with women only gaining equal voting rights in 1928. By the early twentieth century a convention emerged that the PM must be a member of the House of Commons.


11 Churchill’s appointment as PM
Change prompted by setbacks in the conduct of the war compounded by weak leadership. Chamberlain forced to resign because many MPs in his own party abstained in a vote in Parliament. Two candidates emerged Lord Halifax, an establishment figure but not able to properly lead the nation from the non-elected House of Lords. On the other hand, although Churchill was vastly experienced he was seen as an unreliable adventurer. The King was advised to send for Churchill, partly because Halifax did not want the job, partly because senior Labour figures in the coalition were willing to serve under Churchill.

12 PM in wartime Coalition government of national unity ruled the country throughout the war. Decision-making based on a small executive war cabinet which included Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Beaverbrook (aircraft production), opposition Labour leader Atlee as deputy to Churchill, Minister of Labour and national service (Bevin). Reflected the centralisation of the exercise of power. Churchill was famous for his war leadership and inspirational speeches in Parliament and on the radio.


14 How is the PM appointed? After an election if the current PM is defeated at the polls he/she will resign and advise the Queen to invite the leader of the largest party to become PM. John Major was defeated by Tony Blair in 1997 and power was handed over as soon as the result was clear. However, if, as in 2010, there was no party emerging with an overall majority the existing PM may hang on to see if a government can be formed. Only when Gordon Brown was sure that a wider coalition was not possible did he resign and recommend to the Queen that David Cameron should be asked to form a government. At all times the survival of the government depends on maintaining its majority in the House of Commons.


16 Change from Blair to Brown
Tony Blair was able to win the election for the leadership of the Labour Party on the premature death of John Smith because he was unopposed by Gordon Brown. Brown maintained that Blair would later step down after 5 years as part of the agreement. Only after winning a third election was Blair prepared to agree to stand aside and let his rival takeover after much factional fighting within the Labour Party. However, there was no internal party election as there was no other viable candidate to replace Blair.


18 Queen and PM: Constitutional Monarchy
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with Queen as head of state and in this capacity she performs some of the same ceremonial functions as the Italian President but has much less power, mainly represents the nation on the international stage. Many conventions have developed which illustrate the emergence of democratic government; Royal assent to legislation guaranteed; Leader of winning party will be invited by the Queen to become Prime Minister and form the government; On the opening of Parliament the Queen reads the Queen’s speech declaring the policy objectives of her government but this is always written by the Prime Minister.


20 Powers of the Prime Minister
PM chooses cabinet and other ministers, Queen only rubber stamps the appointments. Unlike in Italy ministers can be dismissed at any time without any legal qualification. PM chairs cabinet, heads security service, co-ordinates role of government from a department based at No10 Downing Street. More controversial is the PM’s role in approving the appointment of senior officials. PM responsible for finally approving many other public appointments e.g. peers, senior judges/Archbishops and Bishops. Also for conferring honours. The PM is also head of the security services. .

21 PM as head of government
Varies between presidential or collegiate style of running the government. Thatcher and Blair were particularly known for concentrating power at Number 10 and using Cabinet for rubber stamping decisions. There is no legal framework to determine structure. PM can not only appoint and dismiss ministers As Minister of the Civil Service and head of the CS the PM can create, fuse and abolish departments without the need for parliamentary approval e.g. Harold Wilson formed Department of Economic Affairs, later abolished. More recently, Blair Brown Lord Chancellor’s Department become Department of Constitutional Affairs. Ministry of Justice created in 2007 acquiring functions of Home Office (prisons) and Department of Constitutional Affairs (courts, judicial appointments and devolution).

22 PM’s Office Number 10 Downing Street grew incrementally but in total this amounted to a huge accumulation of functions, particularly following WWII. Many levers of power now with PM. The role of a specialist expanding team of personal advisers responsible for shaping policy across government. The ability to exercise appointment dismissal and terms of employment of such advisers. Increasingly centralised control over policy by forcing all policy announcements to be cleared with No 10 first. Press secretary (spin doctors) exercising power in their right e.g. Alistair Campbell under Tony Blair. Controversy under Cameron over Andy Coulson former Murdock newspaper editor.

23 PM: Power in relation to Cabinet
Subject to political considerations (e.g. the coalition agreement) the PM has unlimited power to appoints and dismisses ministers e.g. Tony Blair was obliged to include Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The PM chairs Cabinet meetings and decides on the agenda. The PM determines the composition of cabinet committees where the real decisions are taken and ensures the s/he chairs the most important ones. These powers are qualified by current coalition agreement. The convention of collective Cabinet Responsibility originated from the need to give the monarch unified advice. Now it means that ministers must agree on policy after cabinet discussion or resign e.g. Westland Affair. Intended to prevent ministers from being disloyal to the government.

24 Collective cabinet responsibility
The convention is intended to ensure that the government speaks with a single voice. Present government (2010) is exceptional because it is bound by the coalition agreement negotiated after the election. Cabinet discussions are confidential so dissent can be expressed without adverse comment. Generally, ministers who are not prepared to accept a matter of agreed policy will offer their resignation to the PM because as Cabinet members once agreed they are expected to support the government line. Robin Cook and Claire Short under Blair resigned because of their opposition to the Iraq war. However, the convention does not overcome political divisions, particularly over Europe in the Conservative party.

25 Let’s agree to differ When Harold Wilson became PM for the second time in 1974 he was faced with a party split over the decision by his predecessor, Mr Heath to join Europe. To overcome the problem he decided to hold a referendum on the single issue of Europe. The convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility was suspended during the referendum campaign, allowing both sides to advocate their opposing positions but only on the understanding that the convention would apply once the issue was resolved one way or the other by the referendum.

26 Extract from current ministerial code of practice
a. The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, applies to all Government Ministers; b. Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies; c. It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister; d. Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000; e. Ministers should similarly require civil servants who give evidence before Parliamentary Committees on their behalf and under their direction to be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information in accordance with the duties and responsibilities of civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code;


28 The Fall of Mrs Thatcher
Very powerful leader, never lost an election as PM Falklands war consolidated her position Strong commitment to market based policies but often controversial and perceived as a divisive figure. Westland Affair: resignation of rival Heseltine over helicopter deal with USA Lost power in November 1990 Faced growing opposition from within her own party over her stance over Europe e.g. resignation of Geoffrey Howe as loyal deputy and Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Determination to introduce the poll tax contrary to advice encouraged opponents e.g. Heseltine to stand against her in an internal election party election procedure.

29 Fixed term Parliament Act 2011
Fixes the date of the next general election 7 May 2015 Future Parliaments are also set at 5 year intervals But the Act removes the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament notionally in the hands of the Monarch but actually exercised by the PM. Election may still be triggered two thirds majority motion or by a no confidence motion in the House of Commons. But PM no longer able to time election to suit his/her party and so the PM relinquished a significant power. Part of a trend towards codifying the constitution General view is that a future Parliament could expressly repeal this act.

30 What is ‘elective dictatorship’?
In light of the convention that the government must maintain its Commons majority to survive, the party managers (whips) can put enormous pressure on MPs of the ruling party to support the government line or risk defeat in a vote of confidence (and, in consequence, an election). In practice, this means that the government can be sure to get its legislative programme enacted. The fact that MPs of the governing party nearly always follow instructions from the whips allows the PM, cabinet (party machine) to steamroller policy through parliament. The concern is that its scrutinizing capacity may be compromised as a result. The parliamentary system in Italy (Article 94) also depends on the government enjoying the confidence of parliament, but until recently with less stability, because the government has tended to be formed from a coalition of large parties and smaller parties or factions, any one of which might break lose triggering a vote of confidence: e.g. fall of Prodi government.

31 Conclusion No job description has every been written for a UK PM. Rather the role has evolved with the constitution. As leader of the national party as well as the government the PM is in a very strong position to achieve policy goals because he or she can count on the whips in Parliament to deliver a majority. Also, collective cabinet responsibility assists in securing a unified party line on most issues. The number of appointments in his or her hands is a further reason why the PM has so much power. Fixed Term Parliament Act is an example of a significant qualification to the power of the PM.

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