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Prime Minister of the United Kingdom




The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the head of government and so exercises many of the executive functions nominally vested in the Sovereign, who is head of state. According to custom, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet (which he or she heads) are responsible for their actions to Parliament, of which they are members by (modem) convention. The current Prime Minister is Tony Blair (of the Labour Party), who has been in office since 1997.

As the title suggests, the Prime Minister is the monarch's principal advisor. Historically, the monarch's chief minister (if, as was not always the case, any one person could be singled out as such) might have held any of a number of offices: Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord High Steward, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal, or Secretary of State among others. With the emergence, in the eighteenth century, of government by a cabinet of these ministers, its head came in time to be called the "Prime Minister" (sometimes also "Premier" or "First Minister"); to this day the Prime Minister always also holds one of the more specific ministerial positions (usually that of First Lord of the Treasury), if only in a nominal sense. Sir Robert Walpole is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister in the modern sense.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign, who is bound by constitutional convention to choose the individual most likely to command the support of the House of Commons (normally, the leader of the party with a majority in that body). Should the Prime Minister lose the confidence of the House of Commons (indicated, for example, by the passage of a no confidence motion), he or she is morally obliged by similar conventions either to resign (in which case the Sovereign can try to find another Prime Minister who has the House's confidence) or to request the monarch to call a general election. Since the premiership is in some small sense still a de facto position, the office's powers are mainly a matter of custom rather than law, deriving from the incumbent's ability to appoint (through the Sovereign) his or her Cabinet colleagues, as well as from certain uses of the royal prerogative which may be exercised directly by the Prime Minister, or by the Monarch on the Prime Minister's advice. Some commentators have pointed out that, in practice, the powers of the office are subject to very few checks, especially in an era when Parliament and the Cabinet are seen as unwilling to challenge dominant Prime Ministers whose attention is increasingly turned not toward Parliament but toward the news media.

 

Powers and restraints

 

The Prime Minister's chief duty is to "form a Government"—that is to say, to create a Cabinet or Ministry which will sustain the support of the House of Commons—when commissioned by the Sovereign. He or she generally co­ordinates the policies and activities of the Cabinet and the various Government departments, acting as the "face" of Her Majesty's Government. The Sovereign exercises much of his or her royal prerogative on the Prime Minister's advice.

The Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces is the Sovereign. Under longstanding parliamentary custom and practice, however, the Prime Minister holds de facto decision-making power over the deployment and disposition of British forces.

The Prime Minister also has a wide range of powers of appointment. In most cases, the actual appointments are made by the Sovereign, but the selection and recommendation is made by the Prime Minister. Ministers, Privy Counsellors, Ambassadors and High Commissioners, senior civil servants, senior military officers, members of important committees and commissions, and several other officials are selected, and in some cases may be removed, by the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, peerages, knighthoods, and other honours are bestowed by the Sovereign only on the advice of the Prime Minister He also formally advises the Sovereign on the appointment of Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, but his discretion is limited by the existence of the Crown Nominations Commission. The appointment of senior judges, while on the advice of the Prime Minister for constitutional reasons, is now on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies. The only important British honours over which the Prime Minister does not have control are the Orders of the Garter, Thistle, and Merit, and the Royal Victorian Order, which are all within the "personal gift" of the Sovereign. The extent of the Sovereign's ability to influence the nature of the Prime Ministerial advice is unknown, but probably varies depending upon the personal relationship between the Sovereign and the Prime Minister of the day.

There exist several limits on the powers of the Prime Minister. Firstly, he or she is (theoretically at least) only a first among equals in the Cabinet. The extent of a Prime Minister's power over the Cabinet may vary. In some cases, the Prime Minister may be a mere figurehead, with actual power being wielded by one or more other individuals. Weak or titular Prime Ministers were more common prior to the twentieth century; examples include William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire and William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. At the opposite extreme, however, Prime Ministers may dominate the Cabinet so much that they become "Semi-Presidents." Examples of dominant Prime Ministers (more common during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries) include William Ewart Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher (who was powerful enough as to be able to organise her Cabinet without regard to Parliamentary conventions), and Tony Blair. The powers of some Prime Ministers waxed or waned, depending upon their own level of energy, political skills or outside events: Ramsay MacDonald, for example, was dominant in his Labour governments, but during his National Government his powers diminished so that by his final years in Downing Street he was merely the figurehead of the government. In modern times, Prime Ministers have never been merely titular; dominant or somewhat dominant personalities are the norm.

The Prime Minister's powers are also limited by the House of Commons, whose support the Government is obliged to maintain. The House of Commons checks the powers of the Prime Minister through committee hearings and through Question Time, a weekly occurrence in which the Prime Minister is obliged to respond to the questions of the Leader of the Opposition and other members of the House. In practice, however, a Government with a strong majority need rarely fear "backbench rebellions."

Members of Parliament may hold ministerial offices (by convention up to 90 offices, or varying levels of seniority, exist), and may fear removal for failing to support the Prime Minister. Party discipline, furthermore, is very strong; a Member of Parliament may be expelled from his or her party for failing to support the Government on important issues, and although this will not mean he or she must resign as an MP, it would make re-election difficult for most Restraints imposed by the House of Commons grow even weaker when the Government's party enjoys a large majority in that House. In general, the Prime Minister and his or her colleagues may secure the House's support for almost any bill.

The House of Lords is considerably less restrictive of the Prime Minister's power. Under the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords normally does not seek to oppose any measure promised by the Government in its election manifesto. When the House of Lords does oppose the Prime Minister, it is generally ineffectual in defeating entire Bills (though almost all Bills are successfully modified by the Upper House during their passage through Parliament). Peers (members of the House of Lords) are created by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister; by obtaining the creation of several new peers, the Prime Minister may flood the House of Lords with individuals supportive of his position. The threat of such a tactic was used in 1911 to ensure the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, which, together with the Parliament Act 1949, reduces the House of Lords's powers and establishes the supremacy of the Commons (in particular, the House of Lords can only delay, but not reject, most bills on which the Commons insist). The 1949 Parliament Act is, however, the subject of a current legal challenge as to its efficacy.

The role and power of the Prime Minister have been subject to much change in the last fifty years. There has gradually been a change from Cabinet decision making and deliberation to the dominance of the Prime Minister. As early as 1965, in a new introduction to Walter Bagehot's classic work The English Constitution, Richard Grossman identified a new era of "Prime Ministerial" government. Some commentators, such as the political scientist Michael Foley, have argued there is a de facto "British Presidency". In Tony Blair's government, many sources such as former ministers have suggested that decision-making is centered around him and Gordon Brown, and the Cabinet is no longer used for decision making. Former ministers such as Clare Short and Chris Smith have criticized the total lack of decision-making in Cabinet. On her resignation, Short denounced "the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers”. The Butler review of 2004 condemned Blair’s style of ‘sofa government’.

Ultimately, however, the Prime Minister will be held responsible by the nation for the consequences of legislation or of general government policy. Margaret Thatcher’s party forced her from power after the introduction of the poll tax; Sir Anthony Eden fell from power following the Suez Crisis; and Neville Chamberlain resigned after being criticized for his handling of negotiations with Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II, and for failing to prevent the fall of Norway to the Nazi onslaught.

 

 


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