Role and powers of the Prime Minister - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

6  Checks and balances

42. We asked our witnesses whether there were sufficient checks and balances on the Prime Minister's powers and, if not, how they could be improved.By checks and balances, we meant mechanisms to prevent too much power from being concentrated in the hands of one individual.Dr Nicholas Allen commented: "Whether you think there are sufficient checks and balances on the powers of the Prime Minister depends on whether you think the Prime Minister is too powerful or not." He himself stated: "There is little evidence that the Prime Minister is too powerful."[51]

43. Others emphasised that the unwritten nature of the Prime Minister's role meant that there were relatively few formal checks and balances on his or her powers, and that Prime Ministers were constrained instead by political factors.Professor Hazell commented:

    compared with most other heads of Government, the British Prime Minister has, in large part thanks to our unwritten constitution, a relatively free hand. In our system, the Prime Minister's powers are very extensive and they are constrained largely by political constraints, in particular the size of the Prime Minister's majority in Parliament, the Prime Minister's standing in his party and his standing in the country. So the Prime Minister's power and authority waxes and wanes depending on those political factors.[52]

Support of MPs

44. Professor Pryce was sceptical about the extent to which the need to retain the support of MPs in their party constrained Prime Ministers in practice, pointing to the Prime Minister's powers of patronage:

    I accept that Prime Ministers have to keep their parties onside but, let's face it, Prime Ministers can keep their parties onside.How many appointed Under-Secretaries are there, or Parliamentary Secretaries, spokespersons and all the way down? Is it about 120 now?So you have 120 people who are somehow placemen.Of the people who are left, you probably have at least 70 or 80 who want to be placemen and have no further hope, except preferment to the House of Lords.[53]

Professor Pryce was of the view that the media, because of its role in influencing public opinion, was a more significant check than any of the political constraints.She commented: "The media is not democratically elected but that probably is our only check on power in this country.We may not like that but that is the way it is."[54]She acknowledged, however, that if a large number of MPs in the Prime Minister's party wanted a change of leadership, they could bring that about: "Certainly I think the ongoing day-to-day power of Parliament is limited, but I do think when it comes to a crisis it perhaps is important.I think Margaret Thatcher demonstrated that."[55]

45. Dr Pinto-Duschinsky placed more emphasis on the significance of the need to retain the support of MPs.He answered the question of whether there were sufficient checks and balances on Prime Ministerial powers by stating:

    I would go back quite simply to the thesis of R.T. McKenzie in British Political Parties, that as long as a Prime Minister has a majority in Parliament and the support of MPs the Prime Minister is powerful, but there is plenty of precedent for that support being withdrawn, and the threat of that withdrawal does act as a very strong brake on the power of the Prime Minister.[56]

Support of the Cabinet

46. The extent to which Cabinet Government functions as a check and a balance on Prime Ministerial power was the subject of some debate among our witnesses. Professor Pryce stated: "Constitutional checks and balances in the UK are designed around the Prime Minister as chair of a Cabinet of equals; not a government that is in practice a presidency.Under such circumstances, the existing checks and balances would seem to be inadequate."[57]

47. However, otherstook a more positive view of the extent to which the Cabinet functions as an effective check.Professor Smith and Professor Richardsstated: "Whilst...formal Cabinet Government may not in practice be the effective site of decision-making, the Prime Minister remains severely constrained if she/he does not have the support of key Cabinet Ministers."They quoted Lord Wilson of Dinton, a former Cabinet Secretary, who in evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee said: "Prime ministers are only as powerful as their colleagues allow them to be...We are always fundamentally in a position where if cabinet ministers wish to assert themselves then the power of the prime minister will be checked and balanced in that way."[58]

48. Dan Corry, who from 2007 to 2010 worked as Head of thePolicy Unit in Downing Street and then as Senior Adviser on the Economy, commented:

    My experience suggests that the Cabinet do act as a sort of accountability check on the power of the PM...

    In short, and depending on the PM's personal position in the Party and Government at the time, the PM has to keep a close eye on what the Cabinet will and will not wash. That does not mean that issues are brought forward for a bold and open discussion and a vote at Cabinet. This occurred rarely in the days when I worked at Number 10 and I suspect rarely ever happens. But it does mean that the PM does not in any way have untrammelled powers.[59]


49. When it came to how to improvepolitical checks and balances, our witnesses cited several possibilities, including the provision of better information for those in a position to exert a check on prime ministerial power. Dr O'Malley, who warned of the need to get the correct balance between putting checks on excessive power and imposing a system liable to deadlock, stated: "A more effective system might be to ensure that those who can exercise checks on executive power can act from a position of full information."[60]This point was supported by Dan Corry, whostated that one of the weaknesses of the Cabinet system was "papers being put out too late so Secretaries of State were often not that well briefed."[61]He commented:

    The Cabinet Office does produce and commission papers for Cabinet Committees to give background, pros and cons and so on. Perhaps these could be fuller—and perhaps there could be better papers for Cabinet itself. That in turn would be aided if agendas for Cabinet were decided well in advance and people were alerted to them. But life often moves too fast at the centre to allow this and circulating papers showing massive difference amongst colleagues is—I fear—a recipe for leaks.[62]

50. There was also an acknowledgement that the operation of effective checks and balances required not simply more information, but a change of political culture.Dan Corry told us: "Ultimately the Cabinet is only as powerful as its members and the way they choose to exercise their power."[63]He added: "At the end of the day, if you have members of the Cabinet who are weak and won't stand up and say what they think, then of course it will be a weaker check, just like any accountability structure."[64]

51. Dr Heffernan spelt out the factors that prevent Cabinet Ministers acting as an effective check and balance on Prime Ministerial power:

    In terms of within the Cabinet and within the Government more generally, people are not likely to want to throw away their political career that they have fought hard for by disagreeing with the Prime Minister on an issue. It is much easier to paddle your own canoe privately and to agree publicly. I think that is a fact of life. Very few people resign…on matters of public policy disputation.[65]

He stated in written evidence:

    Only a set of radical changes in political culture—for example (1) the assertion by ministers of their existing individual rights and the collective rights of the cabinet or (2) the refusal of the Prime Minister's parliamentary majority to endlessly prefer to supply and support the government rather than check and balance it—could significantly clip the Prime Minister's wings in between elections.[66]

He suggested that some form of codification could help to empower those in a position to act as a check to do so more effectively:

    codifying in some part further institutional developments is important because, after all, Lilliput temporarily kept Gulliver down with 1,000 ropes or whatever it was. One way in which Parliament and one way in which politicians can constrain the Prime Minister is by empowering colleagues within the Cabinet to be slightly more assertive.[67]

52. The need to keep the support of the majority of Members of Parliament and the support of the Cabinet acts as a check and balance on the powers of the Prime Minister.In extremis, Members of Parliament can, as history demonstrates, remove a Prime Minister from office by withdrawing their support.However, these political mechanisms are not effective as a day-to-day check and balance on Prime Ministerial power.Members of Parliament—be they Cabinet Ministers or Backbenchers—can technically say "no" to the Prime Minister, but the Prime Ministerial powers of patronage mean they very rarely do.A more assertive Cabinet, and a more assertive House of Commons, would require a change in political structure.Defining Prime Ministerial powers could be the start of that change.

51   Dr Nicholas Allen written evidence Back

52   Q68 Back

53   Q25 Back

54   Q4 Back

55   Q50 Back

56   Q188 Back

57   Professor Sue Pryce written evidence Back

58   Professor Martin Smith and Professor David Richards written evidence Back

59   Dan Corry written evidence Back

60   Dr Eoin O'Malley written evidence Back

61   Q145 Back

62   Dan Corry written evidence Back

63   Q145 Back

64   Q148 Back

65   Q24 Back

66   Dr Richard Heffernan written evidence Back

67   Q303 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 24 June 2014