Is The British Prime Minister Becoming 'Presidential'?


7 Answers

Mark Henderson Profile
Mark Henderson answered
Some commentators have indeed argued that the British Prime Minister is becoming 'presidential', and this development was associated with Margaret Thatcher's premiership during the 1980s.

Thatcher had a habit of making policy on the hoof and she reduced the number and the duration of Cabinet meetings, as well as the degree to which the discussions that took place were documented. Despite this, the PM's department cost more to run than did the Queen's household in 1989.  A combination of factors indicated a shift from the role of a Prime Minister to a President, including Thatcher's image being displayed at Tory Party meetings; her stance as the mother of the nation at times of national disasters, and her persistent taking of the salute at military occasions.

John Major's premiership is regarded as a move back towards traditional Cabinet government. He didn't follow many of Thatcher's new presidential habits, and suffered in the press as a result. He was perceived as weak and exhausted, whilst his opponent Tony Blair was seen as youthful, energetic and inspiring.

The notion of "presidentialism" returned when Blair was elected. Resignations of government ministers, particularly over the war in Iraq, and Blair's continued rhetoric over the War on Terrorism are just two illustrations of Blair's presidential style of government. As with Thatcher, Blair reduced the power of the Cabinet, and instead preferred to hold bi-lateral meetings with a minister in private. Furthermore, Blair reduced the number of sessions of Prime Minister's Questions from two per week to just one, and rarely spent time within the House of Commons. 

Presidential features of the modern Prime Minister.
- The Weakening of The Cabinet.

- Increased size of the PM's office.

- Bilateral meetings with Cabinet minsters.

- The use of "spin" doctors.

- Heavily repeated "soundbites" in speeches.

- The vast increase in special advisers to the PM.

- Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

- Reduction of time in House of Commons, fewer sessions of PMQ's.

- Increased role in International Affairs.
Richard Marsden Profile
Richard Marsden answered
Some commentators have argued that the British Prime Minister is becoming 'presidential'. During the 1980s, this development was associated with Margaret Thatcher's premiership. According to Johnson, Thatcher had a habit of making policy on the hoof and she reduced the number, documentation, and the duration of Cabinet meetings. In fact, in 1989, the PM's department cost more to run than the Queen's household. Johnson also mentions Thatcher's presence in pictoral form at Tory Party meetings, the mother-of-the-nation act at the time of national disasters and the persistent taking of the salute at military occasions. Foley explains that Thatcher's perceived domination of government revived interest in the traditional debate between prime ministerial power and the power of the Cabinet.

The notion of "presidentialism" can also be seen in Tony Blair's premiership, it is argued. Resignations of government ministers, particularly over the war in Iraq, and Blair's continuing rhetoric over the War on Terrorism are just two illustrations of the Prime Minister's presidential style of government.
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
Some examples supporting the first part of the question...

Blair/Brown’s monthly press conference – focus on PM, not govt
Blair’s poor attendance in HofC
Focus on Blair on cover of 1997 manifesto
Blair’s direct  control of foreign policy (Afghanistan, Iraq, relations with US)
Thatcher’s use of Alan Walters rather than Nigel Lawson in No10
Thatcher & Blair’s expansion of No10 Policy Unit
Blair’s increased use of special advisors
The Spitting Image caricature of Mrs T and the ‘vegetables’
Mrs Thatcher’s role in foreign policy – Falkland’s factor and relations with Reagan
Blair’s use of ‘Sofa govt’ (Butler Report) and ‘bi-laterals’
Clare Short & Mo Mowlam’s charge that Blair ignored Cabinet and acted presidentially - see Short at the Chilcot Inquiry
Close association between New Labour and Blair (transformation of party by Blair and inner circle – use of personal pronoun)
Blair’s efforts to distance himself from Old Labour – ideological Third Way
Use of term “Blair’s babes”
Blair’s sidelining of Cabinet (Bank of England independence, Millennium Dome, Iraq)Thatcher and Blair’s control over Cabinet (Thatcherites & Blairites)
Thatcherism and Blairism suggests they existed above and beyond their parties
Blair’s use of Whips and majority to control HofC
Thatcher’s image as the Grocer’s Daughter – non-traditional Tory leader (an outsider)Brown’s use of inner circle (Balls, Mandelson)
Caroline Flint’s charge that brown operates a “two-tier” govt (June 09)
2007 Lord Turnbull’s (Cabinet Secretary) charge that Brown was “Stalinist” in his control of No 11
Blair’s Cabinet meeting often lasted only 45 mins with no votes or meaningful debate
Mrs Thatcher’s image as the Iron Lady, mother of the nation, even taking the salute (rather than the Queen) on the return of the Falkland’s vets.
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
Britain is by definition a Prime ministerial government however in recent years many have suggested that it has in fact become more similar to a presidential government due to the dominance of the PM in the area of administration and their debatable detachment from their cabinet.
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
Yes brown and bliar spatial leadership international affairs being more involved with us presidents - having an army of civil servants workin in office - going behind cabinet al thatt
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
The mere fact that the Executive branch in the British parliament has become stronger is evidence enough to suggest that the British Prime Minister has become more Presidential. I say this because what this means is that the Prime Minister now has even more power in 'Practice" than on paper, and this is fortified by the fact that s/he is able to build a comfortable majority government of MP's that will apply minimum pressure and disagreements with him/her. This is possible because of the Prime Minister's ability to hire and fire fellow MP's at will, and in fact s/he does not need explicit permission from the Legislature, which brings me to my second point of the fact that the Prime Minister has become less and less accountable to the Legislature. However this topic is an extremely contested one, seeing that a parliamentary system has distinct differences from a presidential one, therefore on paper the Prime Minister can 'never' be a president. But my argument is that the role that a 21st century Prime Minister plays has become more and more like that of a president (in certain areas).
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
Possibly a more interesting analogy is Nick Cohen's argument that the UK PM now acts more like a medievel monarch than a US president. Presidents face far greater checks and balances than UK PMs, whereas the analogy of a monarch highlights the notion that PMs have arguably become less scrutinised, more domineering and more centralising in recent years - switch the analogy and the theory probably holds more water.

Alternatively, one might argue that UK PMs have become more presidential in style, though not substance. UK PMs occupy very different constitutional positions from US presidents, so the comparison falls down at the first hurdle, whereas one can argue more convincingly that PMs such as Thatcher and Blair acted in a presidential manner/style, though without the formal role.

Answer Question