Are British Prime Ministers as powerful as sometimes claimed?

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7 April 2016

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It can be argued that Prime ministers are almost omnipotent in the political system in the UK, this is due to the shear variety of powers in-which the prime minister holds, and the prerogatives that are taken advantage by the prime minister. However, checks on powers in the UK means that the prime minister is not as power as they appear, moreover, they are not separable from the UK political system, henceforth, they are controlled and limited within the system they are part of, thus, more often than not, prime ministers are less powerful then sometimes claimed.However, prime ministers are as powerful as they appear due to the multiple sources of power they control within the UK. Mainly, the prime minister has a vast amount of power as they are part of both the executive branch of government and the legislature, due to the fusion of powers in the UK political system, this means that they can create law and then use their representation in the legislature to force through the law. Moreover, prime ministers have many prerogatives that were granted to the queen as the head of state. This was seen in 2003 when Tony Blair used his prime ministerial powers to declare war on Afghanistan. Hence, due to the extensive variation in their powers, prime ministers are as powerful as they claim, as all parts of the government are open to their control, though prime ministers are not always able to exploit all these powers, but the power is there for prime ministers to take. Hence, in the sense of variety, prime ministers are as powerful as they seem.Contrastingly, prime ministers powers are very dependable, and in many cases, the extent to a prime ministers powers depends on the size of their party’s majority in government. This was portrayed by the weak prime ministerial control of Harold Wilson in 1974, when his minority Labour Party took government for all of seven months and achieved nothing. Thus, a prime ministers power is little if their party is not in a powerful position in government. This has been observed more recently with Cameron’s proposed reforms of the NHS, however, with only a 76 seat majority (provided by the coalition with the liberal Democrats), there has been incredibly slow progress, even with Cameron’s constant campaigning and push for the implement of the reforms. Hence, prime ministers are not as powerful as sometimes claimed as they have little control over proceedings of government by themselves, it is only when they are accompanied by a strong position in parliament by their represented party that their objectives can be achieved. Thus, the power of a majority party on government is sometimes mistaken and thought of as a prime ministers power, thus making them appear more powerful than they are,

Nevertheless, prime ministers are powerful in the sense they dominate political agenda within government. Since Thatcher’s domination of the political agenda of the privatisation of public businesses in the 1980’s other prime ministers have displayed their power in the same way. Cameron has dominated the political agendas since 2010 with his policy of the Big Society, which has been the centre piece for his leadership, thus it is constantly referee to throughout both the government and the media. In this case, prime ministers are as powerful as they claim, as they are the leaders in government, hence the political agenda is fully controlled by what they as leader wish to tackle most in government. Prime ministers set the tone for their leadership, they have the ultimate decision on the political agenda country and thus have a powerful image and position as all those in government, to some extent, must follow their lead; even if they wish to debate against the political agenda, thus they cast power over all those involved in government and parliament.

On-the-other-hand prime ministers, like all people are confined by the events that take place around them, this they are not that powerful as these events define the extent to which they can achieve their aims. For instance, Brown’s power became very limited over the countries economics after the credit crunch of 2008, meaning that prime ministers are not as powerful as sometimes claimed because it is the events in-which impact their reign that control the extent of their power. Even when times were good during Blair’s leadership, and the economic boom of the 2000’s, Blair was only able to invest heavily in education and public services due to the fact times were economically good, not due to the fact he had power as a prime minister. Thus, a prime ministers power is dependable and elastic throughout their reign. Prime ministers do not have a set power, and cannot be as powerful as sometimes claimed unless all the factors within government are in their favour, thus prime ministers are not as powerful as sometimes claimed.

However, in the aspects in which a prime ministers have power over, such as cabinet, they do dominate and are as powerful as they appear. Both Thatcher and Blair dominated their cabinets during their time as prime ministers. Blair called cabinet meetings when he saw fit and developed the idea of “kitchen cabinet” in which he would select small groups of advisors, and even then it was mostly to inform them of his ideas on a policy, and to inform the members what was needed of them to achieve these ideas. Moreover, Thatcher dominated cabinet with such strength that it lead to the resignation of Geoffrey Howe in 1990, as he felt she dominated cabinet too much, or in other words, was too powerful for the good of the government. Hence, prime ministers are incredibly powerful in the sense that they can completely control the aspects of government in which they have some form of power in, and therefore in these aspects, much like cabinet, prime ministers are as powerful as sometimes claimed, if not more powerful.

Contrastingly, power is these aspects of government are limited as they are still parts of government, hence this power can be weakened or even nullified by these aspects of government. It is these aspects that lead to the removal of Thatcher by her own party, and cabinet especially, in 1990. Blair also suffered a similar fate in 2007 as he was removed from power by his Labour Party. Therefore, though prime ministers do have these powers in government, it is the government which checks these powers and limits them massively. Thus, though prime ministers may appear to have limitless power in aspects of government, this power is hard to attain and sustain throughout their time as leaders. The powers are very often constructed by opposition parties in government and disagreements in cabinets. Hence a prime minster is not as powerful as sometimes claimed as their power is forever limited by factors outside of their control, mainly those also involved in government.

Therefore to conclude, though prime ministers have a large variety of power, and in some cases can exert incredible amounts of power to dominate these aspect, as a whole prime ministers are not as powerful as they appear. It is the checks and balances on these powers that make sure that the facade of a prime ministers power remain as such. The UK democratic system was created to prevent tyranny by a monarch, thus it also stops the over exertion of power by a prime minster; to prevent the same tyranny. Additionally, regardless of how much power one prime minster has, their power is an elastic model throughout their reign, reaching points of omnipotence and weakness, depending on factors that are mostly out of a prime ministers control. Moreover, a prime minster remains the first among equals, but these combined equals in cabinet and parliament have the closer to nullify a prime ministers power, it is for these reasons that prime ministers are not as powerful as sometimes claimed.

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StudyScroll. (2016). Are British Prime Ministers as powerful as sometimes claimed? [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 1 June, 2023]

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"Are British Prime Ministers as powerful as sometimes claimed?" StudyScroll, Apr 7, 2016.

"Are British Prime Ministers as powerful as sometimes claimed?" StudyScroll, 7-Apr-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 1-Jun-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Are British Prime Ministers as powerful as sometimes claimed?. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 1-Jun-2023]

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