Power of the British Prime Minister

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Power of the British Prime Minister

The prime minister is that person who leads the majority party in the

House of Commons, or who commands a majority of support in that house.

PMs continue in office until they resign or concede a defeat after a

general election. They also may reign after losing a motion of no


In the 19th Century, Bagehot wrote (in the English constitution 1867),

that parliamentary government had been superseded by Cabinet

Government - that the theoretical sovereignty of parliament had been

delegated to the executive for all practical purposes. The powers of

government, and its cohesion under the convention of collective

responsibility, ensured that the government could maintain a united

front in the face of parliamentary opposition. Within such a system,

the PM could be described as "primus inter pares" - first among equals

- because, although he was the leading member of the government and

its chief spokesman, it was the cabinet rather than the PM that

dominated the decision making process.

Almost 100 years later, when Richard Crossman edited "the English

Constitution he was able to state that the doctrine of cabinet

government had itself been replaced by one of prime ministerial

government.. Later in his diaries Crossman was able to develop his

original theory that the PM dominated the decision making process.

The PMs powers have grown over the last 100 years for a variety of

reasons: the growth of the franchise has placed the elected government

in a position of greater authority; the development of national party

organisations after 1870 has tended to exalt the position of party

leaders a...

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...tion to his colleagues. A PM like Home may have been similar to

the 19th century "primus inter pares", but mrs Thatcher has displayed

a strength of personality that represents a growth in PM power.

However any PM in a modern government faces limitations from every

sector of the government, the public and parliament, and PMs can only

do what's feasible - as RAB Butler said "politics is the art of the

possible". Neither "parliamentary government" nor cabinet government

has ever existed in a pure form and equally prime ministerial

government has its constraints. If mrs Thatcher at the peak of her

influence signified the outer limits of prime ministerial power, john

major saddled with a small parliamentary majority and a party bitterly

divided over Europe, equally signifies the very real limitations a PM

can be subject to.
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