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.