(Photo: U.S Embassy in London)
By Owen Buchan – Regular Contributor
The position of Prime Minister is not a static but an evolving role. Historically the position has gained more powers and duties as the UK moved towards a Parliamentary democracy. These roles and powers tend to contract and expand depending on variable factors of the day, such as the character of the PM and the parliament they preside over. Currently we are witnessing a new evolution in the role of the PM. This evolution was most notable under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and has continued since, most notably by Tony Blair and the incumbent Boris Johnson. Therefore, this new style and conduct of the PM is becoming so apparent and regular in the premiership of PM’s; it would be appropriate to call it the new normal.
This new normal is that of the Presidential Prime Minister. The PM; whether it be their rhetoric, actions or media coverage about them; is starting to resemble a president in a startling way. To understand a presidential style or conduct we must understand and identify key acts from a president. Our Atlantic neighbours in the USA are the prime example. Therefore, we will look at key aspects of the US presidency and this will allow us to identify how they have become common in the UK.
A major aspect of the US Presidency is the focus on the individual. Even before being the sole presidential candidate, various debates occur between potential candidates amongst the major parties. In these debates, candidates bring forward their own personal agenda. Once one candidate is selected and ratified at a party convention, the party is expected to fall in line with the new presidential candidate. Take Donald Trump as an example. Leading up to the 2016 presidential election; he stood on his own platform of building a wall and various other unique policies. Once becoming the official Republican presidential candidate; the entire Republican party largely stopped their criticism of him and started to follow his rhetoric and talking points. Thus, the Republican party started to coalesce around Trump.
This is observable in the UK. Take the 2019 Conservative leadership election. Initially there was a wide field of candidates, going head to head with each other on televised debates, very similar to the US. Furthermore, as these candidates were from the same party, the focus became about how each leader would mould party policy; how would they as an individual tackle x, y or z. For example; Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt were able to offer differing personal policy positions for tackling Brexit despite being in the same party. This echoes the individualism of presidentialism.
Once becoming the President, this focus on the individual becomes more intense. Certain Presidential duties enforce this, such as the annual State of the Union Address, which acts as a policy statement to Congress. The PM has a similar equivalence with the Queen’s speech to parliament; where the PM is able to emphasise their own policy agenda and give it greater legitimacy through the Queen. The press in the US will also focus on the President, with the White House having its own press room where a member of the President’s office can answer the media and nation as a whole. Similarly, this is now occurring in the UK. Daily briefings from Boris Johnson to the entire nation earlier into the Covid-19 situation again seemed very presidential; essentially a part of 10 Downing Street has become a Press Room and after Covid it is unlikely it will disappear. Even if Boris is unwilling to attend, he is able to send someone in his place or someone to support him, often Matt Hancock as Health Secretary.
In the area of Governance, PM’s are also starting to resemble a president. The President has direct control over areas like foreign policy and military issues. For example, Trump was able to unilateral pull America out of the Paris climate agreement or have Syrian General Muhammad Suleiman assassinated. The Prime Minister has been able to exercise unilateral powers in similar areas. Margaret Thatcher did not consult parliament to go to war over the Falkland’s; setting up a special war cabinet to help more personally direct the war. Tony Blair similarly was able to be militaristic with the Iraq War, with his very large parliamentary majority, and support from the Conservative party, essentially meaning no one could stop him. While more recently, there has been little direct military action like the Iraq war for Britain; Boris Johnson could have the possibility to be presidential with any military intervention. In foreign policy, the PM has increasingly presidential powers. Theresa May and Boris Johnson directly or through advisors were the ones dealing with the EU and setting out the British terms for a deal. This power of creating deals will become more prevalent for Prime Ministers as time goes on due to Brexit.
Moving away from external powers of the PM in areas like foreign policy and military issues; we can observe the centralisation and consolidation of power by the PM at home. This continues to reflect the presidentialisation of the role of the PM. This centralisation of power had started under Thatcher; with the mass reduction in the size of the civil service in order to reduce opposition to her then controversial policies. Then under Blair we saw the birth of the “sofa government” where major policies were not relayed to the relevant cabinet ministers. Therefore, the cabinet as a whole became a weaker entity and Blair as a PM was more able to solely dictate policy like a president. Boris Johnson has been continuing this trend. Earlier in February 2020, he sought to centralise control over the treasury by replacing then Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid’s personal aids with his own people. Furthermore, we have seen that the role of personal advisors instead of the cabinet for devising policy has become the norm. Whilst Boris’s main advisor Dominic Cummings is now gone, we can bet there are a whole host of other advisors reporting straight to the PM himself.
So, what is the effect of all this? It is hard to tell the full picture. PMs’ are likely to continue to centralise power. New but legitimate ways will potentially be found to keep the reins of power directly in the PM’s hand. PMs’ policy as a pose to parties manifestos very well may become the prime ideas for a government to follow.
Is a presidential PM a problem? In these times of rapid and unexpected change it may not be. Britain is now looking to assess and re-discover its role in the world. Thus, a presidential PM, who can enact some policy almost off the cuff with little resistance quickly may be the temporary solution we need. To those who look at this with horror, this is not permanent. Benjamin Disraeli for example was renowned for his delegation of authority. Therefore, it is possible that in the near future, once the UK is more politically stable without Brexit and Covid, we could see an end or at least a decline to the presidential PM, but given the recent trajectory of the role, it would appear that the importation of American political culture to the UK is only going to increase.
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Swinford, Steven (2020) “Boris Johnson plans White House-style daily television press briefings”. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-to-start-white-house-style-tv-press-briefings-939lkwxkx
Jackson, William.E (2010) “Is the Prime Minister Becoming More Presidential?”. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-the-prime-minister-bec_b_565309?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACnp05wSvjUYNJzRqOv9113IJAr0FLREfibfWwNW3WUA6zitpHxNZQGgqC0KjKj_KWdUur0wcEHBZCarJSIKNBFfsx09EGtRe_U7inBVM3bToaB-YmyWN9U75ggtW23Vz6ClvIXVFUh9RozvU3hapLFMHKgtG7XbEKcMd2BPR2_Z
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