Since the 1960s there has been a general perception that prime-ministerial power has increased in the UK. It was Richard Crossman, a Labour minister under Harold Wilson, who first identified the idea of ‘prime-ministerial government’. This view was especially reinforced under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who were both very dominant prime ministers. In recent years, however, it has become apparent that there are also great limitations on prime-ministerial power. This essay will examine the evidence as to whether the limitations are actually growing.
Prime-ministerial power is considerable mainly because the holder of the office has several different important sources of power. The first is the existence of prerogative powers. These are the arbitrary powers enjoyed by the monarch which are delegated to the prime minister. They include the power of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chief foreign policy maker, and the power to appoint or dismiss government ministers. These powers are especially important because they are not under the control of Parliament.
A second source of prime-ministerial power is his position as leader of the governing party. This effectively means that he is chief policy-maker. This is especially true since the role of parties as policy-making machines has gradually declined. As party leader the prime minister is also leader of his party in Parliament, so Parliament is also a source of his power. Finally, we can also say today that the prime minister enjoys the people’s mandate from the previous general election. The electorate, after all, vote for a leader as well as a party.
All this means that a modern prime minister has great powers. Above all he has the power of patronage. MPs and many peers owe the future of their careers to him and so he can command their loyalty to him. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher were particularly careful to use patronage as a way of dominating. Thatcher removed her enemies from cabinet...