The British prime minister has become more prime ministerial and less like a president

2.coverThe July issue of Parliamentary Affairs is now online and this issue’s Editor’s Choice is The Prime Ministerialisation of the British Prime Minister by Keith Dowding. The full article is free to download from the Oxford Journals website. 

For forty years or more commentators have suggested that the British prime minister is becoming presidential. Whilst the recent coalition government has given some pause to that claim it shows little sign of permanently abating.

There are two issues here. One is the claim that the British prime minister is becoming increasingly pre-eminent in relation to his or her cabinet colleagues. The other is that the prime minister is becoming more like a president, with the US President as the paradigm. The first claim might have some truth in it – though one can look back to dominant prime ministers such as Churchill or Gladstone – related to enhanced prime ministerial resources, deriving from the growth of the cabinet office and the prime minister’s own office, the growth of political advisers, the increasing use of cabinet committees and one-to-one meetings with ministers rather than decisions taken in full cabinet. Meanwhile, the line-by-line budget oversight that the Treasury now enjoys means that the centre is increasingly involved in policy formation through budgetary detail. A case can be made that growing resources are making the prime minister more powerful vis-à-vis ministers.

However, some of this resource growth is the result of the increasingly complex reach of government. Prime ministers have always felt that they can barely keep up with what government is doing; and as departments extend the scope of their activity, the centre needs to expand to keep up. Besides, cabinet government has never really been about 22 people sitting around a single table. It has always involved meetings between departmental servants and ministers of various sorts as policy is hammered out. Greater budgetary oversight enhances Treasury more than prime ministerial powers – as Brown demonstrated under Blair. Nevertheless, whilst the claim of increasing prime ministerial power might be overplayed at times, it has some merit. However, it does not add up to presidentialisation: if prime ministers do increase their powers to such an extent that true cabinet government is threatened, that would mean a prime ministerialisation, not a presidentialisation of government. The nature of parliamentary systems makes prime ministers more powerful than presidents. Strengthening prime ministers takes them further away from being presidents.

Presidentialisation theorists suggest the increasing resources of prime ministers are making them more presidential. The prime minister’s office is compared to the presidential office, but the role of each is entirely different. For the prime minister’s strengthening control mechanisms are directed at the executive, to dominate ministers and their departments, whilst the executive offices of the US president are directed at lobbying and persuading the legislature. In the UK virtually all legislation emanates from the executive; in the US it comes from the legislature. One mark of that is that we tend to talk of parliaments – talking shops – in parliamentary systems; but of legislatures – where the real business of making laws is done – in presidential systems. In fact the US President often signs off on legislation that he does not really agree with. The Congressional Quarterly’s Presidential Support Score is a well-established measure of the frequency with which lawmakers vote in accord with the president’s position; over the last fifty years the CQ score has varied from 80 to around 98. Can you imagine a prime minister signing off around 1/5 of legislation not in accord with his wishes, as did Kennedy in 1962 or Bush in 2001?

Some claim the growing personalisation of politics is making prime ministers more presidential. The media concentrate their attention upon prime ministers more than they once did, whilst the centre increasingly exercises controls over the media appearances and statements of ministers (something that Cameron relaxed at first but then tightened as he realized the damage that could be caused without control). The advent of the Downing Street Press Conference has certainly bestowed a more presidential air on prime ministers, but these effects are all superficial.

The personalisation of politics plays out differently in parliamentary than presidential systems. In parliamentary systems increasingly, it seems, the fate of MPs rests with the popularity of their party leaders; hence the threat to Brown prior to the 2010 general election, while the Australian Labor Party dumped first Rudd leading up to one election, then Gillard in the run-up to another. In the USA personalisation enables congressmen to distance themselves from unpopular leaders. In parliamentary systems candidates are tied closely to the policies of the party and its leader. In August 2012 the US Republican party’s official anti-abortion position (adopted by the platform committee) was that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; but the party chairman Reince Pribus admitted, ‘This is the platform of the Republican party. It’s not the platform of Mitt Romney’. In the US the ‘party leader’ does not lead, or even follow, the party on policy.

The key fact is that British prime ministers are agenda-setters, presidents are veto-players. The media, parliament and, of course, ‘events’, can seize the agenda. Presidents, by and large, are veto players who can only set the agenda through their power of persuasion. Obama started with a domestic programme of which healthcare reform was a central plank, but the final bill was a compromise between the two houses of Congress without Obama’s preferred public option. Obama, like most presidents, ends up concentrating upon foreign affairs where he can set the agenda more.

The British system has not become more presidential; if anything it has become more prime ministerial. Coalition government has done little to change that – though if the Liberals had played coalition politics properly, as the game is played in the rest of Europe, any such prime ministerialisation might at least have been paused. Parliamentary and presidential systems are institutionally distinct, which means that universal forces such as personalisation play out differently and are as likely to drive them further apart as bring them closer together.

Keith Dowding is Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University in Canberra and author of ‘The Prime Ministerialisation of the British Prime Minister’.  

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