The role and powers of the Prime Minister

Written evidence submitted by Professor Kevin Theakston and Dr Timothy Heppell, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds

1. There is no constitutional definition of the British Prime Minister’s role or any authoritative specification of the office’s functions, powers and responsibilities. They are a matter of convention and usage, not statute, and are thus to a large degree flexible and subject to variation and change over time. The extent to which the job bears the imprint of personality and circumstances is well understood. Functions, responsibilities and demands on the office and its holders have expanded over time but that brings overload as much as extra ‘power’ in any straightforward sense. The PM is by tradition First Lord of the Treasury and usually also Minister for the Civil Service but does not normally now take charge of any government department – though in the past PMs sometimes combined the role with holding office as Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, or other posts.

2. Official guidance on the Prime Minister’s role is limited. The draft Cabinet Manual describes the PM as head of the government, chief adviser to the Sovereign, and chair of the Cabinet. The PM is thus responsible for appointing/dismissing ministers, orchestrating the Cabinet committee system, and the overall organization of the executive and allocation of functions between ministers and departments (this latter role also noted in the Ministerial Code). The Cabinet is described in the Cabinet Manual as ‘the ultimate decision-making body of the UK Executive’, while the PM is said to ‘usually take the lead on significant matters of state.’

3. In contrast to the position in Westminster, the offices of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland First Ministers do have a statutory basis but the relevant legislation deals mainly with procedures for their nomination and appointment, and with their own role in appointing ministers in their administrations, rather than with their policy and administrative roles. The German Basic Law states that the Federal Chancellor ‘shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy’, while Japan’s Cabinet Law describes the PM there as the head of the Cabinet, with the power to ‘propose items including the basic principles concerning the important policies of the Cabinet’, and as exercising ‘control and supervision over the administrative branches’ of the government. New Zealand’s Cabinet Manual describes the PM as responsible for ‘coordinating the government’ and ‘overseeing the government’s general policy direction.’

4. Greater definition of the British prime ministership would not weaken the office and nor, we believe, would it strengthen it unless it was done in such a way as to write the Cabinet’s role out of the equation, based as it is upon the key constitutional principle of collective responsibility. The attempt to define the Prime Minister’s office, role and functions in Mr Graham Allen’s November 2001 Bill would, arguably, have had that effect – his proposal not actually referring to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s role as its head at all. In our view, the Prime Minister’s role and powers cannot and should not be considered as separate from the role of the Cabinet in our system of government. Including in the Cabinet Manual or in some other code wording similar to the New Zealand case about the PM’s general policy and coordinating role (and ‘overseeing’ policy direction would be a better term than ‘determining’) may bring a bit more clarity but, realistically, will not alter the underlying realities.

5. Around the world in parliamentary systems Prime Ministers formally enter or take up office in a number of different ways. In the ‘Westminster model’ systems (including the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) the head of state - Monarch or Governor-General – formally appoints the Prime Minister under the Royal Prerogative without direct reference to parliament or a parliamentary vote, though it is understood that the ability to command the confidence of the parliament is the key political factor in the appointment. In other systems the mechanics of the process are different: the head of state may appoint the PM after the parliament nominates a candidate (as in the Republic of Ireland); or the head of state may nominate a candidate for the position of head of government who is then approved by the parliament in a vote (as in Spain and Germany); or the head of state may appoint a PM who then must obtain a vote of confidence from the parliament (as in Italy). The Queen on the nomination of the respective devolved assemblies appoints the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales. Only in Israel, between 1996 and 2001, was the Prime Minister directly elected by the popular vote, an experiment that did not work out as planned and was subsequently abandoned.

6. Direct election of the British Prime Minister would be a major constitutional change in itself and would bring in its wake far-reaching political and constitutional changes in other parts of our system. It would change the British system into a hybrid parliamentary-presidential one. Whatever the pros and cons of such a development, it seems at the moment far beyond the range of feasible or practicable constitutional and political reforms. The immediate focus, in our view, should be on parliament’s role - more properly, the House of Common’s role - in the appointment of Prime Ministers. It is striking that in the fifteen mid-term successions - changes of Prime Minister mid-parliament – since 1902 in only one case (that of Churchill succeeding Chamberlain in 1940) was there an immediate confidence vote in the House on the formation of the new government. We would support the introduction of the practice of a formal Commons investiture vote for Prime Ministers following a general election and on a mid-term succession in Number 10. The Monarch’s prerogative power to appoint the Prime Minister would remain, but the House of Commons would nominate or recommend who should be appointed. This change may have some practical advantages in the context of hung parliaments and party negotiations on coalitions or the terms of support for minority governments. But even in the case of clear single-party majority governments, explicitly demonstrating that governments and Prime Ministers hold office by virtue of commanding the confidence of the House would be of great symbolic importance.

7. The advent of coalition government in May 2010 has certainly impacted on powers and responsibilities normally regarded as belonging to the Prime Minister alone. Under the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform the Prime Minister is obliged to consult and agree with the Deputy Prime Minister over the appointment, reshuffling and sacking of ministers. The PM hires and fires but must fully consult, and the allocation of posts between the parties in the coalition is expected to operate on a ‘one-in, one-out’ rule to maintain the agreed balance between the two coalition partners. The premier’s patronage power in all governments is subject in practice to political constraints but – so long as the coalition lasts - this is a new formal limitation. A similar limitation on the PM’s normal discretion is in relation to the establishment of Cabinet Committees, the appointment of their members, and the framing of their terms of reference, which have to be agreed between the PM and the DPM. Principles and expectations are also spelt out about the functioning of government, including requirements for consultation and discussion among ministers, and clearing certain issues if necessary through the Coalition Committee to ensure both parties agree.

8. Mr Cameron had declared before the general election that he wanted a more collective Cabinet government style of policy-making and decision taking. The imperatives and dynamics of coalition make that a necessity. That does not mean, however, that a detached ‘chairman’ style of premiership is called for or likely to be successful. Effective and successful Cabinet government needs a strong Prime Minister (and in the coalition context a strong Deputy Prime Minister too) to set the tone and provide a sense of direction and overall strategy. If a single-party government were to be formed in the future we would expect a reassertion of formal prime-ministerial powers over ministerial appointments and the composition of Cabinet Committees.

9. That Prime Ministers have at their disposal the power to reconfigure Whitehall departments can be seen as helping the administration secure their long-term policy goals. There is, however, a concern about the motivations behind such machinery of government changes, as well as the mismatch between the ability of the PM to initiate change and the capacity of parliament to effectively consider the merits of such change. Providing parliament with information on the process of departmental restructuring after the process has commenced by placing a Transfer of Functions order before it makes such changes a fait accompli. Moreover, departmental restructurings often occur with insufficient planning and a lack of time for implementation, and historically it is clear that they are tied up with ministerial reshuffles. Here the motivation of the PM may not primarily be effective administration and policy implementation but short-term political factors about party management. To ensure that this power is exercised in a more considered way it may be advisable to limit the likelihood of restructurings being tied to ministerial reshuffles. One way to do this would be to require parliament to be informed of the intention to initiate a departmental restructuring. With built in consultation periods, parliament should then have the time and capacity to vote on the merits of a proposed change. Requiring a parliamentary resolution to approve a proposed departmental restructuring would ensure that the Prime Minister and government have to clearly identify the justification and rationale for machinery of government change. Through more advanced cost-benefit analysis and increased lead-in time for the implementation of reorganization, this would aid the implementation of that process. With parliamentary approval such changes could also claim to have greater legitimacy. Significantly, this may make departmental restructurings occur less often, which may in itself be no bad thing.

10. Halting and if possible reversing the long-term decline in prime-ministerial activity in the House of Commons - a trend that has been well documented and which long predated the premiership of Tony Blair, who devoted even less time to parliament than his predecessors, rarely participating in debates and having a poor voting record – is central to strengthening the direct accountability of the prime minister to MPs and to parliament. Realistically, there can be no return to the pre-second world war days when Prime Ministers were also Leaders of the House and so more continuously involved in its business than in recent decades. But because of the importance of the issues, and without pre-empting the responsibilities of their Cabinet colleagues, Prime Ministers should certainly be expected to introduce (or at least speak on) major constitutional measures in the House of Commons, something that was usual practice before Mr Blair’s premiership (he left other ministers to open and close the second reading debates on his government’s constitutional legislation).

11. Prime Minister’s Question Time is a central feature of prime-ministerial accountability to parliament but it not the immutable part of our constitution that the textbooks and tourist guides pretend. Its form, routines, place in parliamentary proceedings and culture have developed over time. PMQs has the advantage of subjecting the Prime Minister to questioning for about two hours a month compared to the one hour per month questioning of most other ministers. The modern media spotlight contributes to the extremely adversarial and gladiatorial nature of the confrontations. As a test of nerve, personality-under-pressure, and verbal dexterity it could hardly be bettered. But the political theatre and knock-about carries a price in terms of substance and questioning in depth. More genuine accountability requires a move away from what Speaker Bercow has called ‘scrutiny by screech’ and ‘abuse masquerading as inquiry’. Proposals to lengthen PMQs to 45 or 60 minutes, perhaps to return to two sessions a week, and to make it more of a backbench institution would be worth serious consideration. The Liaison Committee’s evidence sessions with the Prime Minister, introduced in 2002, have allowed discussion of domestic and international policy issues at greater length and in more detail than at PMQs. Some journalists have mocked them as ‘bore-a-thons’ that do not leave ‘blood on the carpet’, but that is almost the point and it makes for productive and informative exchanges. But these are only twice-yearly events and it is arguable that more frequent sessions would be of value. If the Prime Minister were also to face questioning by an equivalent Lords select committee, an extra dimension of accountability and expert scrutiny might be added.

28 February 2011