Are PMs becoming more presidential?

Whether the British prime minister is now effectively a president is a different question to an evaluation of the extent of, and limitations to, the prime minister's power. This question asks whether the power and authority of modern prime ministers has grown so much that he or she is in effect a head of state.

Evidence of presidentialism

· The prime minister enjoys prerogative powers. These are powers that the PM can exercise without the sanction of cabinet or Parliament. They are therefore, similar to the powers enjoyed by an elected president.

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    • Michael Foley, an academic commentator, describes a tendency to 'spatial. leadership'. This implies that modern prime ministers have tended to separate themselves from the rest of the government. Sometimes they have even criticised government itself, suggesting that they stand above it. It also means that prime ministers have claimed a direct link to the nation, above the heads of the rest of government. MrsThatcher presented herself as a sensible 'Grocer's daughter and was critical of the establishment particularly the mandarins of the civil service. Blair's claim to speak for the ordinary man- 'Mondeo Man'- He made one of his first objectives to remove Clause 4 from the Labour Party's constitution. Theresa May says she will stand up for the JAMs- Just About Managing families.

  • the process of ‘presidentialisation’ has allegedly altered the role and influence of the prime minister and affected the working of UK government in broader ways. Evidence of growing presidentialism in UK politics includes the following:

  • Growth of ‘spatial leadership’. This is the tendency of prime ministers to distance themselves (giving them ‘space’) from their parties and governments by presenting themselves as ‘outsiders’ or developing a personal ideological stance (for example, ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Blairism’).

  • Tendency towards ‘populist outreach’. This is the tendency of prime ministers to try to ‘reach out’ directly to the public by claiming to articulate their deepest hopes and fears. It is evident in the growing tendency of the prime minister to speak for the nation over major events, political crises or simply high-profile news stories. It is also reflected in the ‘cult of the outsider’, the attempt by prime ministers to present themselves as non-establishment figures on the side of the ordinary citizen.

  • Personalised election campaigns. The mass media increasingly portrays elections as personalised battles between the prime minister and the leader of the The Media increasingly treat the prime minister as a quasi-president.

  • Party leaders thus become the ‘brand image’ of their parties or government, meaning that personality and image have become major determinants of political success or failure.

  • Personal mandates. This is the trend for prime ministers to claim popular authority on the basis of their electoral success. Prime ministers have therefore become the ideological consciences of their party or government, their chief source of conviction and policy direction.

  • • Wider use of special advisers. Prime ministers increasingly rely on hand-picked political advisers rather than on cabinets, ministers and senior civil servants.These advisers often have a personal loyalty to the prime minister rather than to the party or government.

  • • Strengthened Cabinet Office.The size and administrative resources available to the Cabinet Office have grown, turning it (perhaps) into a small-scale prime minister’s department responsible for coordinating the rest of Whitehall.

· Several modern prime ministers have adopted a presidential style. This means that they often claim to speak for the nation as a whole (as a president can do), especially during times of crisis.

e.g Blair's 'people's Princess'- 2014 David Cameron visits victims of flooding

· Since the 1980s and the end of the Cold War in 1990, prime ministers have increasingly become involved with foreign policy. This has been especially true in terms of the Middle East, the Balkans and parts of Africa. Blair's meetings with George Bush and his personal agreement to support the USA in Iraq.

· There has been a huge growth in the availability of independent advice to the prime minister. There is now an extensive Downing Street machine that looks increasingly like elements of the White House in Washington.e.g SPADs like Fiona Hill/ Policy units/ the use of Sofa Politics and bilateral decision making-Blair increased his political staff to nearly 80 - many of them concerned with managing the media - but also a host of new units like the Social Exclusion Unit, the Policy and Innovation Unit and the Centre of Management and Policy Studies. Most of these have been located in the Cabinet Office but many of them reporting direct to the PM.

· The personalisation of politics has increased. During elections, the party leaders have become the key figures (notably in the 2010 election with the arrival of televised leadership debates which are a feature of US elections). Election broadcasts often focus on the personality and personal life of the leaders- e.g Major was shown touring Brixton where he was brought up.

· The decline of the cabinet has enhanced the power of the prime minister. Cabinet meets less often, for shorter periods, and is less of a collective body than it used to be. e.g Blair's Millennium Dome decision. PMs dominate policy leadership-e.g May's support for Grammar Schools contrasted with Cameron's lack of enthusiasm.

  • Blair was accused of 'control freakery'. He insisted on the whole government being 'on message' and used the term 'joined up government'-All speeches and press releases had to be approved by the Number 10 Press Office led by Alistair Campbell. Blair and Campbell also engaged in 'spin' to manipulate the media- most notoriously in the 'dodgy dossia'- which claimed Iraq had WMDs

Counter-evidence to the theory of presidentialism

· The prime minister is not the head of state, even if he or she behaves like one sometimes. Constitutionally the Queen is Head of State. So while such trends suggest that UK prime ministers increasingly resemble presidents, not that they have become presidents. Quite simply, prime ministers cannot become presidents because the UK has a system of parliamentary government rather than presidential government

The PM does not have a separate electoral mandate. He or she is prime minister through being the leader of the largest party, not through being elected separately as PM. Theresa May is still only the MP for Maidenhead. This is why PMs can be removed or replaced by their party without causing an election- e.g Mrs Thatcher

· The UK still has collective government and the PM will back down if faced with determined cabinet opposition e.g Thatcher resigned after she lost the support of her cabinet. Theresa May backed down when there was cabinet opposition to Heathrow's third runway. A president has a very different relationship with thew cabinet- they are merely advisers and there is no Collective Cabinet Responsibility.

· Not all prime ministers wish to adopt a presidential style of leadership. They may wish to be more consensual, treating government as a collective body and not the instrument of his or her personal power. e.g John Major. Cameron was forced to share power with the Lib Dems and accept more debate in the cabinet. Cameron abolished some of Blair's Number 10 Machine-Blairs's Policy Unit -He also allowed Ministers greater independence to develop policy in their departments- e.g Michael Gove in Education.

· Presidentialism may be merely style rather than substance. This means that a prime minister may appear to be a president, but in reality, his or her position is different. Presidentialism is more of a reflection of media culture and 24 hour news which nee e.g Cameron's web-cam- Theresa May's shoes and Vivian Westwood fashion

  • Also there are a number of significant differences between the US president and a British PM- PMs dominate Parliament in a way that no President can dominate Congress. As leader of a disciplined party the PM uses whips and patronage to control the House of Commons but a US president will suffer regular defeats and face opposition in Congress. PMs face ridicule in PMQs (think of Gordon Brown's 'Saved the World moment'- but presidents are treated with great deference and respect. Presidents are checked and limited by the constitution but PMs are free to use unchecked prerogative powers such as hire and fire.

  • A Prime Minister whose position depends on vote-winning potential is only as good as their latest opinion poll.

Prime minister Factors pointing to or against presidentialism


  • He led a new political movement — New Labour

  • He built up a large policy-making machine reporting to him personally

  • He committed the armed forces to four major actions — in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan

  • He became an important, well-respected world statesman

  • He significantly weakened the cabinet and developed much policy personally

  • However

  • He was ultimately driven out of office by his party colleagues He lost his authority at home after the Iraq war

  • Always shared power with his chancellor Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown 2007- 2010

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He assumed a dominant personal leadership position during the financial crisis of 2007-9

He was respected abroad for his handling of financial crisis


His personal standing in the country began quite low and steadily declined

He was limited by a divided cabinet

He did not adopt a presidential 'style'

Theresa May 2017- 2019


Personally, conducts negotiations with foreign leaders- First foreign leader to meet Trump.

Has a distinct style- shoes/ Vivian Westwood outfits

Ran an election focused on her personality


Has a divided party - soft and hard brexitiers.

Has included Boris Johnson in the Cabinet- even though he was seen to have betrayed Cameron

Authority faded rapidly after losing her majority in the Commons