Taming the PM?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

The classic essay question asks: what are the powers of the Prime Minister? Graham Allen’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has been wrestling with this issue since 2011. The driving force for this debate can be traced back to the 2003 parliamentary debate on the war in Iraq. There is recognition now that any prime minister would find it impossible to commit troops in similar circumstances without a substantive vote in favour in the House. Codifying the prime minister’s war making powers has never made it to the statute books, but maybe it should as an additional safeguard to convention. We now have fixed term parliaments, a Cabinet Manual, a Coalition Agreement and a more formalised cabinet system under this coalition government. Why not fix the Prime Minister’s power in law too?

In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Mark Bennister cautioned against codification. Prime Ministers gain power from a range of sources, both formal and informal. It is not only the institutional resources associated with leading the executive that empower a Prime Minister, but also the ‘skill in context’ or ability to shape situations to the leader’s advantage. Personal is indeed political. A dynamic and charismatic figure, whilst clearly not imperial in parliamentary democracies can stretch resources to support and enhance predominance. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, also giving evidence, argued that the Prime Minister needed more partisan resources to do the job.

Mark Bennister warned against direct prime ministerial election, a particular interest of the Committee Chair. The only case of direct prime ministerial elections political scientists have to study occurred in Israel from 1996 to 2000. This form of presidential parliamentarianism or ‘presidentarianism’ proved a disaster, causing fragmentation of the party system and sclerosis as the prime minister’s position was weakened. The experiment was quickly shelved.

There are however perhaps better areas for reform and greater clarity. Prime Minister’s Questions could certainly do with an overhaul. It may be great political fun, but longer sessions with supplementary questions may reduce the Punch and Judy aspect. The Liaison Committee which questions the Prime Minister twice a year could meet more frequently with fewer members to provide a more focused and forensic probing. Another option could see an investiture vote in the Commons to confirm a new Prime Minister in post. Such a shift to positive parliamentarianism would locate the Prime Minister firmly within the legislature.

Does comparative research in this area help? In most countries we find ambiguity surrounding the role and powers of the prime minister. In Australia the Prime Minister is not even mentioned in the written constitution. Cabinet formality is stronger and more structured in Australia, but on Iraq John Howard could boldly state that it was ‘an executive decision’ to commit troops. However as Kevin Rudd and Bob Hawke found to their cost, Australian Prime Ministers remain in post at the gift of heir parliamentary parties and can be removed swiftly if the numbers in the party room or caucus swing against them. By contrast in Japan the Prime Minister is written into the constitution with their powers mapped. But this is no guarantee of stability; since 2006 Japan has had 7 Prime Ministers.

As Machiavelli would perhaps point out, codification may clarify but it is political power that counts.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Women on top – promotional patterns in the House of Commons

By Peter Allen

This week saw the publication of the Counting Women In report ‘Sex and Power 2013’. As I have written elsewhere, with Philip Cowley, the media reacted by focusing on a the most troubling cases, The Observer announcing that the number of women in professions including politics to be ‘plummeting’, despite plummeting of any sort being in short supply.

Much of the focus has been on the number of women in the Cabinet, something we address there, showing that the Cameron Cabinet has exactly the same number of women in right now as Blair did at a comparable point in his premiership (the percentage is slightly lower given an overall increase in the number of ministers eligible to attend Cabinet).

Behind much of this comment, however, seems to lie an assumption that women do badly in parliament – that once elected, they will struggle to get on, and get promoted, relative to their male colleagues. This simply isn’t the case.

Looking at the largest group of women ever elected to parliament at the same time, the 1997 intake, there is no (statistically) significant difference between the promotional paths of men and women, with women actually having more success in reaching the very top jobs in British politics.

178 Labour MPs were elected for the very first time in May 1997, 114 men and 64 women. Out of this group, only 10 ever made it into Cabinet office during the Labour government of 1997-2010 – five men and five women. In terms of percentages, that’s 8% of the Labour women, but only 4% of the men.

The next office down the ministerial ladder has a similar story – only 17% of Labour men made it to office of Minister of State compared to 20% of women.

Now turning to the lesser offices, lower down the governmental pecking order, men outnumber women. Undersecretary of State, for example; 14% of Labour men counted this as their highest office compared to only13% of women, and as for PPS, this was the best it got 18% of men compared to just 16% of women. Finally, looking at those MPs who never got off the backbenches and into governmental office of any kind, this was again the case for more men than women, 47% and 44% respectively.

Highest office reached (n=178); no statistically significant differences (Fisher’s exact test).

The obvious retort to this is that despite the percentages, there are still more men in these positions overall, which is true. However, what this highlights is that the problem is the low number of women in parliament overall, not that they are being passed over for promotion in favour of men.

As academic work, including my own, has repeatedly shown, candidate selection is the real battleground here, in addition to other political pipeline institutions such as local councils – for example, why don’t more women make the transition from councillor to MP? This is a common route to parliament, one which 42% and 63% of the 2010 and 1997 intakes respectively, but three-quarters of MPs who did so are men. A concerted effort to get more women making this move would have a big effect on their numbers in parliament.

Focusing on the number of women in Cabinet may be an easy target and may engage the media, but it misses the point. It is no doubt true that women have suffered from discrimination in parliament, but it would seem that this hasn’t stopped them getting on, ultimately beating their male colleagues to the top jobs.

Peter Allen is a doctoral research student in the Department of Politics. He writes about political careers and has published work in Parliamentary Affairs and British Politics.