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Home » Essays » Has the Principle of Cabinet Government Been Marginalised by a ???Presidential??™ Prime Minister Does It Matter

Has the Principle of Cabinet Government Been Marginalised by a ???Presidential??™ Prime Minister Does It Matter

The idea that the Prime Minister acting ???Presidential??™ has marginalised Cabinet Government is in my eyes a valid one. In coming to this conclusion it is necessary to understand exactly what Cabinet Government is and so, determine if in fact it is being trivialised and marginalised by the PM. The Cabinet is a collection of elected ministers, chosen by the PM to aid in making important decisions for the PM. The most important principle for the Cabinet as stated in the Ministerial code is ???The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside ??™. Prime Ministers chair these meetings and are meant to be the ???first among equals??™, however I don??™t believe this is the case for a number of reasons. Firstly because the PM acts as the ???first without equal??™ in a dominant fashion, this is aided by the very personal Bush/Blair relationship making way for the concept of a ???celebrity politician??™. Secondly Blair and Thatcher tended to bypass Cabinet and make use of their special advisers contributing to marginalisation, and thirdly the shortening in length of the Cabinet meetings adds to it being sidelined.

My reasons for why Cabinet Government has been marginalised begin with the Cabinet meetings themselves; this being the length of them, and the infrequence of them. This isn??™t the most fundamental factor involved in my argument yet it is still important in showing marginalisation. Tony Blair reduced Cabinet meetings down to 30 minutes and only had one every week. This sidelining of the Cabinet is emphasised by Michael Foley when he contrasted the Cabinet meetings of John Major and Tony Blair into the categories of seminar and lecture (respectively) . Brown promised a ???new style of government??™ and to empower the Cabinet more, claiming he didn??™t want a ???sofa government??™ like Blair, but this wasn??™t the case as he only changed the day of the meetings and immerged as a bully during them. Adding to this, Margret Thatcher said about Cabinet meetings ???I don??™t mind how ministers talk, as long as they do as I say??™ . Therefore I find this a good reason for why Cabinet Government has been marginalised. The avoidance of Cabinet ministers shows a clear step away from Cabinet and suggests the PM may wish to look elsewhere for advice.

A second and more important reason why Cabinet Government has been marginalised can be found in where the PM may be looking for this aforementioned advice; Special Advisers. Tony Blair had 27 special advisers aside from the Cabinet. He held many bi-lateral meetings with only 2 or 3 advisers present, which caused Kavanagh to describe Blair??™s leadership as a ???sofa government??™ . James Naughtie even said ???No Prime Minister since the nineteenth century has spent more time avoiding cabinet colleagues than Tony Blair??™ . In total Tony Blair had over 200 hundred people working for him in No. 10, so many they had to spill over into No.12. Thatcher, although not having quite as many as Tony Blair was also guilty of having non-Cabinet advisers. She preferred to recruit her own advisers from more experienced backgrounds. Through this we can see another blatant move away from Cabinet advice thus strengthening my view that a ???Presidential??™ Prime Minister has marginalised Cabinet Government.

Another very important factor contributing to a lessened presence of Cabinet Government is the role the PM plays in foreign policy and the new idea of a ???celebrity politician??™. Blair??™s dominant role in pushing for the invasion of Iraq promoted him as a separate source of authority and arguably a head of state. Also, his very personal relationship with G. W. Bush helped add to this image that Blair was making key decisions based primarily on a few peoples views and not on the Cabinets. Seconded to this it the idea of a ???celebrity politician??™, where political parties are voted in on who the leader is, and not what the policies are. An example of this can be see in the television debates pending the May 2010 elections where Nick Clegg??™s voting poll sky rocketed after a fantastic performance in the debates even though there was no change in his policies at all. This shows that even the electorates aren??™t thinking about electing a party, but a leader to lead the country, which is not Cabinet Government. Thus emphasising my point that Cabinet Government has been sidelined by the PM.

The fourth and most important factor in explaining how Cabinet Government has been marginalised is the dominance of recent Prime Ministers. Thatcher as aforementioned when asked about her Cabinet Ministers said ???I don??™t mind how ministers talk, as long as they do as I say??™ showing her clear domineering attitude. Blair wasn??™t much different in his approach and Clair Short said of his meetings that ???occasionally people would express concern??¦ but only in a mild way and others rarely took up such comments??™ . Blair was known as an ???Oscar winning??™ convincer and really did dominate the meetings, which meant that sometimes they were known as ???Tony??™s meetings??™. Gordan Brown was the same in this respect however his overpowering of Cabinet meetings was much more eveident than Blairs. There were even allegations made against him by several members of No. 10 claiming that he had mistreated staff, sworn at them, and ???grabbed them by lapels??™ . Conjoined with this the PM also dominates policymaking as he/she is the lead spokes man/woman in Cabinet meetings. Lord Home even once said of Thatcher ???no minister could make a really important move without consulting the PM??™ emphsising this dominance. Thather also dominated policymaking and in her position was able to challenge the policys and principles of Conservative othodoxy given that she was the ???rank outsider??™ . This shows that her position gave her an ability to manipulate Conservative policy even without the support of the Cabinet. Key to my entire argument is that fact that the PM has the ability to claim a separate source of authority and his/her own mandate giving them the abiltiy and reach of presidencial power. Therefore from this we can see that the Cabinet has been marginalised by a few ???presidential??™ prime ministers who act dominantly in Cabinet meetings and have the ability to push for their own perogatives rejecting a Cabinet way of ruling.

Obviously this argument has responces which I feel it nessisary to touch on before concluding my essay and asking if it matters that Cabinet Government has been sidelined and marginalised. Firstly it has been noticed by many critics that whether or not Cabinate Government has been marginanlised depends on the personality of the PM. For example given that Daivd Cameron is the PM of a coalition governement then Cabinet Governance is almost compulsory if the coalition is to succeed. Also the personality of the PM is argued to have an impact of the power of Cabinet, for example John Major??™s cabinet played a huge role in his decision making which could to some show that Cabinet will only be marginalised by a ???presidential??™ prime minisiter if his/her personality deem it so. However I don??™t agree with this veiw that would be put forward by critics such as Hennessy (who stated ???that the office is malleable which is shaped by the officeholder??™ ) as I believe that if the PM has the ability to sideline Cabinet, then Cabinet is therefore marginalised. I would agree with Hennessy in stating that depending on the PM, Cabinet Government can be disregarded more so, but I would not say that it isn??™t marginalised at all.

A second critism of my argument comes from Jones and Norton and is that ???The Prime Minister is dominant within British Government, but not all-powerful, and the territory is becoming smaller??™ . What they??™re suggesting by this is that in reality policy-making power isn??™t concentrated in Downing Street and is passed to senior ministers. This is known as the baronial model. Essentially the point is that the PM does make some decisions but nonetheless has to work with ministers and officals to deliver public policy. As stated by Jones and Nortan there was one incodent where Thatcher actually lost a bill (the Shops Bill in 1986). However what this argument fails to realise is that the PM does in theory have the ability to overule cabinet. I would also point out that in Blair??™s government, most of the key advice came from special advisers and not from the Cabinet.

Another criticism of my response to this question can be seen through the amount of power demonstrated by Cabinet ministers. Critics of my conclusion would argue that in the past, ministers have been able to undermine the rule of the Prime Minister. For example, when Margret Thatcher fell from power in 1990, it has been argued that due to the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) crisis, 4 cabinet ministers resigned and consequently Thatcher lost her seat as PM. Similarly when Robin Cook, the ex Lord President of the Council resigned, this did much to destabilise Blair??™s government. Therefore these critics are suggesting the Cabinet Government has not been marginalised as ministers still have the ability to undermine and arguably ???out??™ a Prime Minister, however I feel it key to point out that Tony Blair did not resign over this matter, or indeed step down from Prime Minister. I would disagree with this line of argument by noting that resigning is a very extreme method of showing your opinion as a Cabinet minister. I think that only a few ministers would be prepared to sacrifice their career in order to be heard. Also if we take, for example, the Expensives scandal we can see that there were many resignations, most famously Jacqui Smith who stood down as Home Secretary after it was discovered that she has clearly broken the expenses protocol. However this did not cause Gordon Brown to retire, in fact, he remained PM for almost another year after she resigned. Therefore we can see that even though in the past PMs have been undermined by Cabinet ministers, this hasn??™t been the case recently which is why I have come to my conclusion that Cabinet Government has been marginalised.

Given now that it is noticeable that a ???Presidential??™ Prime Minister has marginalised Cabinet Government, it is time to answer whether it matters, of which my answer is yes. I think that due to the dominance of recent prime ministers, and the sidelining of Government we have seen a fall in the competance of decisions making. During Blair??™s government, I believe there was a decline in the quality of decision making in the ???den??™. Lord Butler of Brockwell agreeds with me on this point and complained of a ???lack of reasoned diliberation??™ and ???too much central control??™ furthering my suggestion earlier that there is an excess of central control and not Cabinet Governance. My answer of, yes it does matter, is furthered by Lord Owen who complained of ???the matey, corner-cutting, somewhat shambolic, structure of No. 10??™s defence and security decision-making which were revealed in the Hutton hearings??™ .

In conclusion, I believe that Cabinet Government has been marginalised by a ???Presidential??™ Prime Minister and I do think that matters. We have seen that Thatcher, Blair, and Brown were ???first without equal??™. However there is a certain part of the question I would like to question. I do believe the Cabinet Government has been marginalised by the Prime Minister, but I do not agree that the PM is entirely ???Presidential??™, I believe it is just a different kind of governance not seen before in the UK. Firstly, the analogy of PM and President can be refuted on formal and structural grounds as the UK and USA possess totally different structures on electoral, institutional, and party organisation. Secondly, it must be questioned on the grounds of a hidden motive or prejudice. When Blair came to power he brought New Labour with him with was set to stir up the masses anyway. A Anglo-American accusation such as this might have damaged his government. ???Given the centrality of Tony Blair to the identity and project of New Labour, together with the security of his party??™s large parliamentary majority, the presidential analogy can provide a welcome source of political leverage for a demoralized opposition??™. Therefore I believe that Cabinet Government has been marginalised by the Prime Minister, and that this does matter given the evidence I have stated above. However, I do not feel that a ???Presidential??™ Prime Minster that undermined it.

Word Count – 2198


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2. M Foley, British Presidency: Tony Blair and the Politics of Public Leadership, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000

3. M Thatcher, Parliament and Cabinet Government Quotes,, retrieved November 5, 2010.

4. D Kavanagh, Politics Review, 2006.

5. Jones and Norton, Politics Seventh Edition, Pearson Education Limited, Essex 2010

6. C Short, An Honourable Deception, Free Press, 2004

7. Patrick Wintour, Gordon Brown Fresh Bullying Allegations, Article, February 2010

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9. M. Foley, The British Presidency, Manchester University Press, Manchester 2000

10. A. Seldon and D. Kavanagh, The Blair Effect 2001 – 2005, Cambridge University Press 2005

11. Lord Owen, The ever-growing dominance of Number 10 in British diplomacy, lecture at London School of Economics, 8 October 2003.