THE OFFICE OF PRIME MINISTER
As with so much of the United Kingdom’s constitution the office of Prime Minister is one, which developed by convention rather than by law. The office dates from the early eighteenth century and had become firmly established as a necessary and inevitable post in the later half of the nineteenth century, when the extension of the franchise combined with the growth of political parties to produce both a (reasonably) accountable government and an opposition party. The first official recognition of the post of Prime -Minister derives from the Treaty of Berlin 1878, and statutory and other formal references to the office remain scant.
In 1889, Lord Morley stated that: .
… the Prime Minister is the keystone of the Cabinet arch. Although in Cabinet all its members stand on an equal footing, speak with an equal voice, and, on the rare occasions when a division is taken, are counted on the fraternal principle of one man, one vote, yet the head of the Cabinet is primus inter pares, and occupies a position which, so long as it lasts, is one of exceptional and peculiar authority.
Little has changed–over the intervening century and the judgment expressed above remains true today. Contemporary interest focuses on the power of the office, the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and the occasional dominance of the Prime Minister over Cabinet colleagues. One question which inevitably arises is whether government has changed from being parliamentary government, through to being best described as Cabinet government and now through to prima ministerial government. The assessment of this question is a matter for evaluation on consideration of. the evidence. It must be recognised, however, that the extent to which there exists prime ministerial dominance will depend very much upon the individual personality of the incumbent Prime Minister: there can be no broad generalisations. It must also be recognised that, whatever the personal power of the Prime Minister, he or she is ultimately dependent upon the support of Cabinet, party and parliament; and, in turn, that support is dependent upon the support of the electorate expressed not just through the vote at a general election, but continually expressed in that amorphous concept ‘the mood of the people’. As the resignation of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher in 1990 demonstrate even a seemingly invincible Prime Minister, who had enjoyed success at three general elections, can fall victim to the loss of the vital support of Cabinet and consequently the loss of office.
The Prime Minister, in addition to being the figurehead of government both within the United Kingdom and internationally, holds more than one office. The Prime Minister holds office as First Lord of the Treasury and is formally in charge of the Treasury, although in practical terms it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer who runs the Treasury. It is in part because of the role of First Lord of the Treasury that the Prime Minister must be a Member of the House of Commons which has parliamentary supremacy over financial matters since 1937, the Ministers of the Crown Act has assumed that the office of Prime Minister and First Lord are held by the same person: Since 1968, the Prime Minister has also held responsibility for the Civil Service as Minister for the Civil Set-vice. On occasions, Prime Ministers will assume other offices. For example, Ramsey MacDonald also held office as Foreign Secretary (Labour government, 1924); Winston Churchill was also Minister of Defence.
The Prime minister and membership of the House of Commons Between 1837 and 1902, six Prime ministers were peers however, as early as 1839, the Duke of Wellington expressed the view that:
I have long entertained the opinion that the Prime Minister of this country, under existing circumstances, ought to have a seat in the other House of Parliament, and that he would have great advantage in carrying on the business of the Sovereign by being there.
With the extension of the franchise in 1832, 1867 and 1884, the supremacy of the Commons over the Lords was firmly established and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 reduced the role of the House of Lords in legislation significantly. There are good reasons – aside from the office of First Lord of the Treasury – for arguing that the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Commons. First, he is today the elected leader of the parliamentary party and must lead that party–into a general election for an affirmation – or denial – of the party’s, and hence his own, mandate. Secondly, the doctrine of individual and collective ministerial responsibility applies to the Prime Minister as it does to all other holders of office. Above all, the doctrines require that a minister is accountable to the electorate through parliament. For the Prime Minister not to be accountable to the democratically-elected House of Commons would effectively defeat the concept of collective responsibility and would be an affront to democracy and the very idea of constitutionalism. Certainly, no breach of law would follow if the Queen invited a peer to take office as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury: but it would clearly fly in the face of convention.
The choice of Prime Minister
A change in Prime Minister will be brought about by either resignation or death or- rarely dismissal of , the office holder. Resignation from office may stem from electoral defeat at a general election, from conflict within the government, from losing the support of the party, from losing a vote of confidence in the House, from a challenge to the leadership of the party, from ‘illness or old age, from death, from voluntary retirement or from loss of support of the Cabinet.
Whatever the explanation for a change in Prime Minister, it is for the monarch to appoint the succeeding Prime Minister. It was seen in Chapter 6 that it is the prerogative right of the Crown to appoint whosoever she pleases, but that by convention rather than law the Queen appoints as Prime Minister the leader of the political party who can command a majority in the House of Commons. In the days before the major parties chose their leaders by some form of election, some discretion was left to the Queen as to the choice of Prime Minister. Nowadays, such discretion is all but dead, other than where a general election produces a situation where there is no overall majority party in the House of Commons. The actual choice of Prime Minister will thus be dictated by the election process within the major political parties and, where relevant, by the result of a general election
Formation of Cabinet
Once in office, the first task of the Prime Minister is to form his Cabinet. Constitutionally, the appointment of all ministers is a decision for the monarch but, in practice, it is the Prime Minister who . determines who shall be appointed. The Prime Minister decides which government departments should be represented in Cabinet although, by convention, certain Departments are always represented. Thus, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor (until the reform announced in 2003), the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Leader of the House of Commons always hold a seat in Cabinet *The Secretary of State for the Department of Constitutional Affairs replaces the Lord Chancellor. Further constraints on membership exist. For example, under the misters of the Crown Act 1975, certain Cabinet positions are allocated to members of the House of Lords. Further, under the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975, the size of Cabinet is effectively controlled – if indirectly – by limiting, the number of ministers who may draw a ministerial salary.
It is also for the Prime Minister to decide whether Cabinet Members should remain in office, and he has the right to require a member to resign and, if they refuse, to request the Queen to dismiss them. This form of control was most strikingly seen in 1962 when Harold Macmillan in ‘the night of the long knives’ removed seven ministers (from a, Cabinet of 20) overnight. The cabinet normally comprises approximately 20 senior members of the government of the day the actual membership is not fixed, and is (subject to convention) for the Prime minister to determine.
The membership of the cabinet in Tony Blair’s government was as follows as at January 2004 Cabinet meetings
The Prime Minister has almost total control over the conduct of Cabinet. The holding and conduct of Cabinet meetings is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide. Traditionally, but not invariably, full meetings of Cabinet are held twice a week. Matters, which are to be discussed in Cabinet, are for the Prime Minister to determine.
Timing of dissolution of parliament
The timing of the dissolution of parliament is within the Prime Minister’s discretion and there is no requirement, either in law or convention, that the Prime Minister submit his choice of date to the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister has significant powers and influence over the appointment of persons to senior positions. For example, it is the Prime Minister who is responsible for the appointment of a Commission to oversee the work of the Security Service, and his consent is required for the appointment of most senior civil servants. Prime Ministerial nomination leads to the appointment of, inter alia, senior judges, bishops, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. His advice is given to the Queen on the granting of new peerages, on honours and on appointments to the Privy Council.
The role and functions of Cabinet
A Cabinet is a combining committee -a hyphen which joins, a buckle which la stem the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state. In its origins, it belongs to the one and in its functions, it belongs to the other
The Cabinet represents the nucleus of government. It is the Cabinet as a whole, which, at least in theoretical terms, formulates, initiates and implements the policy of the government. Because there is no written constitution defining and controlling the working of Cabinet, it is not possible to give a fixed picture of its role. The use and working of Cabinets will vary with different governments and the different style and personality of the Prime Minister of the day
As the central decision making body, the Cabinet has great power in relation to parliament as a whole relation to the political party it represents and in relation to the Prime Minister. While the Prime ” r Minister may control the composition and working of Cabinet, no Prime Minister can ultimately survive in office without the support of Cabinet and party. The style of leadership will depend upon the personality of the premier, and an evaluation of whether it is parliamentary government, Cabinet government or Prime Ministerial government, will also depend upon the strength of the Prime Minister vis a vis his or her colleagues.
In order to facilitate efficiency, the Cabinet is supported by a system of committees which, again, is largely determined by the Prime Minister. Some of these are standing committees which will exist for the life of the government. Ad hoc committees may be established to consider particular matters. In addition, a whole range of official committees staffed by civil servants exist to complement the work of Ministers.
While the use of committees is both necessary and inevitable, it raises important constitutional questions concerning the doctrine of collective responsibility requires that each member of Cabinet, and all government ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, is’bound by the decisions of the’ Cabinet. The extent to which the doctrine will in practice be binding will depend upon the extent government members are prepared to maintain confidentiality and unanimity over decisions in which they may have played no part