Role and powers of the Prime Minister

Written evidence submitted by Professor Richard Toye, University of Exeter

(RPPM 01/13)


· This submission focusses on a neglected aspect of prime ministerial power – the role of the prime minister’s public and parliamentary speech.

· It considers the validity of comparisons between the UK prime ministership and the so-called ‘rhetorical presidency’ in the USA.

· It examines potential problems of prime ministerial speech raised by fixed-term parliaments and the prospect in the future of increased numbers of referenda.

· It recommends continued investment in the Downing Street website, increased use of professional training and advice for those involved in writing prime ministerial speeches, and a return to bi-weekly sessions of prime minister’s question time.


The questions about the role of the prime minister suggested by the Committee are valuable ones, but they do not encompass the full range of prime ministerial activity. Similarly, the longstanding academic debate about the power of the British prime minister has tended to focus on formal instruments of control exercised within Whitehall, to the exclusion of discussion of the ways that prime ministers augment their power through public communication. Speaking to the voters (normally via the media) offers an important tool that prime ministers can use to maintain themselves in power and to achieve control over the policy agenda. David Cameron’s January 2013 policy announcement on Europe serves as a reminder of the continued importance of prime ministerial speech, even as the importance of the electronic media continues to grow.

The issue of prime ministerial speech cannot be separated from the debate about whether Britain now has a ‘hidden presidency’ (Allen 2001: 4; see also Foley 1993). The modern prime ministership clearly has some features in common with executive presidencies in other countries, but it must not be assumed that this equates to a firm control over all the levers of power. Indeed, the recent ‘fiscal cliff’ stand-off in the United States reminds us that presidents can face severe challenges when attempting to secure the changes they desire. The ‘presidential’ aspects of the British premiership, then, are in part a matter of using public speech to compensate for the practical limitations on prime ministers’ extensive formal powers. It is doubtful that many recent occupants of 10 Downing Street have had the sensation of being all-powerful; rather they have had to get to grips with Whitehall’s characteristic ‘inertia’ (Blair 2010: 205). At the same time, they may be hearing of ‘government policies’, of which in fact they know nothing, via the media (Hennessy 2013). Public speaking offers prime ministers an important way of exerting influence, if not control, over the political process. Any analysis of prime ministerial power must therefore consider this key aspect of political communication. We must also ask: are there any ways in which prime ministerial speech can be reformed, either in order to enhance the effectiveness of the office, or to improve accountability?

Forms, frequency and functions of Prime Ministerial speech

Prime ministers, of course, speak both within parliament and outside it, and these two types of speech pose different problems of analysis. Recent decades have seen a decline in the amount of prime ministerial speech within the Commons, measured by the number of separate days on which the prime minister spoke there (Toye 2011). This decline was accelerated by the shift under Tony Blair to a weekly rather than bi-weekly prime minister’s question time (PMQs). Prime ministers no longer intervene in debate ad hoc – parliament might be described as a place they visit rather than a working location for their core political activity (as it was for Gladstone or Baldwin, for example). On the other hand, the institutionalisation of PMQs in its modern form in 1961 in time gave it a ‘gladiatorial’ aspect and a prominence that it had previously not had. This was brought to a wider public audience with the start of regular radio broadcasts from parliament in 1978 and the televising of the Commons in 1989. On the one hand, this has led to an increased focus on the person of the prime minister, and so might be thought to support the ‘presidentialisation’ thesis. On the other hand, though, under the separation of powers model, no president would find themselves interrogated by the legislature in this way.

At the same time, there has been an increase in extra-parliamentary speech, a category which includes media interviews, informal remarks and press conferences, as well as set-piece speeches. Typically, recent prime ministers appear to have spoken outside the Commons between seven and nine times a month. In March 2008, Gordon Brown spoke outside the Commons 23 times, but the discrepancy is perhaps explained by variations in reporting: the Downing Street website at that time seems to have recorded relatively trivial sets of remarks of a kind that would not have been posted there under Blair or Cameron. Whatever the exact frequency, there is a dramatic contrast with, say, the early 1950s, when a month might pass without the prime minister speaking outside the Commons at all.

Commons engagements may be minimised, but they cannot, of course, be avoided entirely. But why do prime ministers find it necessary to speak outside the Commons? There is, of course, the tyranny of the diary: and there have certainly been historical incidences of prime ministers making significant policy statements at a particular time simply because the occasion demanded they say something. There are also party audiences to be addressed. More broadly, we can see that public speaking gives prime ministers the opportunity to:

· Float policy initiatives and gain political momentum.

· Put specific commitments on the public record.

· Praise colleagues who are in favour and (usually more obliquely) criticise or distance themselves from those who are not.

· Attempt to secure support for particular policies and attack domestic opponents.

· Send messages to foreign governments, both friendly and hostile.

Practical and constitutional issues raised by prime ministerial speech

In practice, prime ministers are almost always addressing multiple audiences beyond those who are immediately physically present. Speeches may be simultaneously tools of domestic political management and weapons of international diplomacy. Recent insider accounts suggest that the drafting of prime ministerial speeches can at times be a chaotic business (e.g. Campbell 2007). The prime minister does, however, have considerable speech-writing support, and an important platform for web-based dissemination in the form of the Downing Street website. In an era in which media coverage of speeches is usually highly selective – the verbatim newspaper account died long ago – the web is vitally important. So too is the Downing Street press operation, as a means of guiding media interpretations. Prime ministerial speeches are now easier to access than they have ever been, both as written texts and as audio-visual recordings. Yet, given the widespread availability of the necessary technology, the prime minister’s relative advantage over other political actors is in this case rather slight.

The question of prime ministerial speech also raises constitutional issues of a type which may be becoming more pressing, and here the comparison with the United States is instructive. In that context, the concept of the ‘rhetorical presidency’ has proved influential in the academic literature. It has been argued that whereas early US presidents had been reticent in their use of oral communication, in the early Twentieth Century, speech-making in the popular arena became a key feature of presidential governance: ‘Today it is taken for granted that presidents have a duty constantly to defend themselves publicly, to promote policy initiatives nationwide, and to inspirit the population’ (Tulis 1987). Crucially, the rhetorical presidency model involves the president appealing to the people over the heads of Congress in order to try to pressure the legislators into the desired action. Barack Obama recently attempted this, with some success, over the fiscal cliff negotiations. At first glance, this model may not seem particularly applicable to the UK system. However, some recent developments may make it more so in the future, with potentially important consequences.

In the late nineteenth century, British politicians such as Palmerston and Gladstone used speeches to bring public opinion to bear upon parliament. But in the years that followed, party leaders gained increased control over their MPs, rendering this tactic decreasingly necessary. With the executive being drawn from the legislature, the possibility of office offered an inducement to MPs to toe the government line. A US president, who may also face a hostile or unbiddable Congress, cannot hold out the lure of office in the same way, and this can create the need to generate pressure on lawmakers within their own party as well as those of the opposition. Post-1945 prime ministers, with other tools at their disposal, have generally not needed to use public opinion in quite this fashion. The obvious exception was Harold Wilson’s campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1975 EEC referendum, which could be seen as a successful attempt to appeal to public opinion over the heads of a divided party.

Since then, two things have changed.

1. Fixed-term parliaments have been introduced.

2. Referenda have become a more regular feature of British political life since 1997, albeit only one (in 2011, on electoral reform) has been UK-wide.

The fixed-term parliament legislation has removed one important weapon from the prime ministerial armoury, as it is no longer possible to use the threat of an early dissolution as a means of enforcing backbench discipline. This may encourage further recourse to referenda. In the cynical words of Kenneth Clarke, ‘If you realise you are doomed in Parliament, you demand a referendum’ (Parker 2013). In particular, the prospect of a post-2015 EU referendum summons up the possibility of a prime minister asking the voters to support a policy which a substantial section of his own party is campaigning against. As the 1975 precedent shows, this is survivable – if the prime minister wins. If that did not happen, the prime minister’s time in office would surely come to an end very quickly, even if the government continued to enjoy the nominal confidence of parliament. In such a situation, the prime minister would in effect be appealing the voters, between general elections, in order to be allowed to stay in Downing Street. That would involve a very different role for prime ministerial speech to that which we have recently been accustomed to.

Conclusion and recommendations

The ‘duty’ of prime ministerial public speechmaking is largely taken for granted, but its ramifications for prime ministerial power are rarely explored. It can have a genuine effect on public opinion. On the basis of polling evidence, it has been argued that in 2003, ‘Contrary to the commonly held notion that politicians follow public opinion […] a UK Prime Minister managed to persuade, through various rhetorical devices and a complicit media, an initially sceptical electorate that a war with Iraq, in conjunction with the USA, was in the country’s best interests’ (Baines 2005). In general, though, it may be that – as with presidential speech – prime ministerial speech is more effective at agenda-setting than at changing people’s minds on specfic policies.

Is it possible to reform prime ministerial speech in such a way as to either a) make the office more effective, or b) to render prime ministers more accountable? Although there are undoubtedly some ways in which the speech-writing process could be rendered more efficient, with possible savings in prime ministerial time, it is unclear that the creation of a more formal speech-writing bureaucracy, such as that which services US presidents, would be desirable. As the memoirs of many presidential speechwriters make obvious, this can lead to turf warfare and unnecessary conflict over the contents of speeches. We may therefore fall back on more limited but practical suggestions:

· Continued investment in the Downing Street website (for example the historical section) in order to build traffic and increase direct access to prime ministerial statements.

· Increased use of professional training and advice for those involved in writing speeches, e.g. via the UK Speechwriters’ Guild (the UK professional association).

In terms of increasing accountability, there is one obvious recommendation to make:

· A return to bi-weekly sessions of PMQs.

This has implications for the use of prime ministerial time. However, its advantages for parliament are clear. The prime minister would be in the House of Commons more regularly. In turn, news coverage of parliament would most probably increase: a once-weekly session is unlikely to generate as much media attention as two, even if it is as twice as long. The proposal would undoubtedly encounter resistance from No. 10, but that in itself may be an indication of its potential value in terms of making the prime minister more accountable.

Finally, whether or not prime ministerial rhetoric is considered ‘presidential’, it is undoubtedly – together with other communications techniques - an indispensable tool of governance. As such it is deserving of attention during the Committee’s current inquiry.

February 2013


Allen, Graham. The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest About the UK Presidency. London: Graham Allen, 2001.

Baines, Paul, and Worcester, Robert M. "When the British ‘Tommy’ went to war, public opinion followed." Journal of Public Affairs 5 (2005): 4-19.

Blair, Tony. A Journey. London: Hutchinson, 2010.

Campbell, Alastair and Stott, Richard (eds.). The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries . London: Hutchinson, 2007.

Foley, Michael. The Rise of the British Presidency . Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Hennessy, Patrick. "David Cameron finds out about policies from the newspapers, reveals Steve Hilton." Sunday Telegraph, 13 January 2013.

Parker, George. "Clarke steps up pro-EU rhetoric." Financial Times, 15 January 2013.

Toye, Richard. "The Rhetorical Premiership: A New Perspective on Prime Ministerial Power Since 1945." Parliamentary History 30 (2011): 175–192.

Tulis, Jeffrey K. The Rhetorical Presidency . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

About the author

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is a specialist in British political history from the late-Nineteenth Century to the present day, and is much interested in the question of prime ministerial power. He is the author/editor of eight books, including Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness (2007) and Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction (forthcoming, 2013).

Prepared 14th March 2013