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The Prime Minister
The position of a British Prime Minister (PM) is in direct contrast to that of the monarch. Although the Queen appears to have a great deal of power, in. reality she has very little. The PM, on the other hand, appears not to have much power but in reality has a very great deal indeed. As we have seen, the Queen is, in practice, obliged to give the job of Prime Minister to the person .who can command a majority in the House of Commons. This normally means the leader of the party with the largest number of MPs.
From one point of view, the PM is no more than the foremost of Her Majesty's political servants. The traditional phrase describes him or her as primus inter pares (Latin for 'first among equals'). But in fact the other ministers are not nearly as powerful. There are several reasons for this. First, the monarch's powers of patronage (the power to appoint people to all kinds of jobs and to confer honours on people) are, by convention, actually the PM's powers of patronage. The fiction is that the Queen appoints people to government jobs 'on the advice of the Prime Minister'. But what actually happens is that the PM simply decides. Everybody knows this. The media do not even make the pretence that the PM has successfully persuaded the Queen to make a particular appointment, they simply state that he or she has made an appointment.
The strength of the PM's power of patronage is apparent from the modern phenomenon known as the 'cabinet reshuffle'. For the past thirty years it has been the habit of the PM to change his or her cabinet quite frequently (at least once every two years). A few cabinet members are dropped, and a few new members are brought in, but mostly the existing members are shuffled around, like a pack of cards, each getting a new department to look after.
The second reason for a modern PM's dominance over other ministers is the power of the PM's public image. The mass media has tended to make politics a matter of personalities. The details of policies are hard to understand. An individual, constantly appearing on the television and in the newspapers, is much easier to identify with. Everybody in the country can recognize the Prime Minister, while many cannot put a name to the faces of the other ministers. As a result the PM can, if the need arises, go ‘over the heads’ of the other ministers and appeal directly to the public.
We take a fairly dim view of them both [the two candidates]. It is a difficult choice, rather like asking which lunatic should run the asylum. We both agreed that they would present the same problems. They are both interventionists and they would both have foolish notions about running the country themselves if they became Prime Minister. It is clearly advisable to look for a compromise candidate.
We agreed that such a candidate must have the following qualities: he must be malleable, flexible, likeable, have no firm opinions, no bright ideas, not be intellectually committed, and be without the strength of purpose to change anything. Above all, he irmst be someone whom we know can be professionally guided, and who is willing to leave the business of government in the hands of experts.
Third, all ministers except the PM are kept busy looking after their government departments. They don't have time to think about and discuss government policy as a whole. But the PM does, and cabinet committees usually report directly to him or her, not to the cabinet as a whole. Moreover, the cabinet office is directly under the PM's control and works in the same building. As a result, the PM knows more about what is going on than the other ministers do. Because there is not enough time for the cabinet to discuss most matters, a choice has to be made about what will be discussed. And it is the PM who makes that choice. Matters that are not discussed can, in effect, be decided by the PM. The convention of collective responsibility then means that the rest of the government have to go along with whatever the PM has decided.