Defining the office of Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister has extensive and growing powers, yet the role is ill-defined in UK constitutional documents. Graham Allen argues in favour of clarifying the role of the Prime Minister. He also suggests it should become a directly elected office, to ensure that it is properly answerable to the UK public.

It is symptomatic of the British constitution that the more important something is, the more vaguely defined it is, and the harder it is to make it democratically accountable.

This principle certainly applies to the office of Prime Minister.

We do not know for certain when it came into existence. Historians tell us that the most important person in this process was Sir Robert Walpole, in the early eighteenth century. His reputation for corruption hardly makes for the most auspicious beginning for any great institution of state. Anyway, he did not actually officially create anything and always denied that he was a ‘Prime Minister’. The fact is that the most important job in British government has come about over a long period of three hundred years without anyone ever knowing precisely what it was; and without Parliament or the public ever having been consulted about it.

The House of Commons select committee of which I am the elected chair, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has been looking at the office of Prime Minister for a number of years now, and we recently published a report on the subject. One of the surprising things we learned when investigating the subject was how little formal definition there is, even today, of the office of Prime Minister. The most that can be found is a few lines in a document published in 2011, The Cabinet Manual. Yet this text is – as the name suggests – an operational guide for government, aimed mainly at officials and ministers. It is not a full public definition of the prime-ministership, nor does it have proper legal force.

But we are talking here about the most important job in the country. The occupant of No.10 is the leader of a political party and the public face and focal point for government. The Prime Minister hires and fires ministers and decides which specific jobs they will have. She or he chairs Cabinet meetings and oversees the structure of Cabinet committees; as well as being able to bypass Cabinet through bilateral or unilateral action. With the support of the Downing Street staff and other units in the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister has oversight of whole fields of government policy. Prime ministers take questions in the House every week about the performance of their government; and twice a year in longer sessions with the Commons Liaison Committee, comprising select committee chairs including myself. They have a special role in the security and intelligence field; and in tasks such as the disbursal of honours and patronage. The present circumstances of coalition mean that the Prime Minister has to work closely with the Deputy Prime Minister (another ill-defined role). But the importance of the office of Prime Minister, and the steady expansion in its functions, persists. It has become in fact a British Presidency, though it is neither acknowledged as such, nor legitimised by being directly elected.

While startlingly few of the powers of the quasi-presidency are derived from Acts of Parliament, this does not mean that the holder of the post has no legal force behind what they do. Prime ministers have a prominent role in the exercise of an ancient constitutional authority known as the Royal Prerogative. Once this group of powers rested personally with kings and queens. Now in practice it has largely delegated to ministers, among whom the Prime Minister is the most important. The consequence of this arrangement is that some of the most important decisions it is possible to take, such as sending the armed forces into potential or actual hostile circumstances, are carried out under powers never approved by the public and their elected representatives, whose consent is not formally required whenever they are used. As we saw with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, even when the government deigns to ask the House of Commons for its views on a military action, it is very difficult for MPs properly to ensure meaningful oversight when faced with the might of a prime-ministerial operation that is on a sustained and determined course towards war. A convention – that is a non-binding rule – for consulting Parliament over the exercise of the prerogative is simply not enough.

Change is possible. For instance, before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, dissolutions of Parliament, leading to a General Election, took place under the Royal Prerogative at the request of the Prime Minister. Now that power is removed from one person and replaced with a set timetable. With reforms of this kind in mind, it is time to consider providing the office of Prime Minister in its entirety with a statutory basis. A proposed law could take as its starting point the description of the office contained in the Cabinet Manual, but may wish to expand upon and clarify it. An example of a possible bill is included in the PCRC report. The government should begin by publishing a green paper setting out the options. It could then fall to the Parliament returned after the General Election to decide what steps to take.

I hope that, in the course of discussions, it would become clear that it is time to accept the appearance of a British Presidency at the centre of our constitutional arrangements. We should both acknowledge and regulate this office; and make it properly answerable to the UK public, through making it directly elected. An important first step would then have taken place towards a fuller codification of the UK constitution as a whole, which should be the ultimate objective of any serious drive towards better-defined and democratically accountable government in Britain.

Graham Allen is MP for Nottingham North and Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

View the recent PCRC report ‘The Role and Powers of the Prime Minister’ here

2 Responses to Defining the office of Prime Minister

  1. McKerrell of Hillhouse says:

    If the First/prime minister is elected by the people, what happens if the leader of the majority party is personally not so highly regarded as another member of the same paty or of the oppositipon and another person elected ?
    Would we end up with the Frist/prime minister leading a Government with a minority party, and would it also be proposed to directly elect other members of the cabinet?
    One could end up that way with a democratic acrosds party lines elected government., which might be good for the country.

  2. Simon of Montford says:

    “…it is time to accept the appearance of a British Presidency at the centre of our constitutional arrangements…” Or is it better to just accept that the Prime Minister role needs formally defining consitutionally. Simply because the most recent handful of occupants have pushed the role more towards the American model, does not mean this un-mandated change should become automatically enshrined.

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