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Essay on the power of the Prime Minister: Truss

Mike McCartney

23rd March 2023

Where do students insert consideration of her premiership? What we decided...

We have been doing a bit of a mocks review, and looking at an essay on the power of the Prime Minister. Students had covered this in Year 12, and so hadn’t really done much in class with respect to the Liz Truss premiership. Where should we place this, the shortest incumbency of No10 in history, when it comes to a PM power essay?

As a bit of background, here is brief summary of the points on the PM has become more powerful/presidential in recent years debate.

To what extent have Prime Ministers become more powerful?

The following points suggest that Prime Ministers have become more powerful/more like presidents.

  • The slow but inexorable decline of full Cabinet as a forum for decision making.
  • The increased use of bilaterals between the PM and the relevant minister, or smaller ‘kitchen’ cabinets. When full Cabinet does meet, it used as a stage for reporting back on events such as meetings of the UN, G8, etc., or the co-ordination of media announcements.
  • Recent PMs have increasingly sought the advice of no- elected, special advisers.
  • Peter Hennessy brought these ideas together in his theory of “circles of influence” – i.e. some ministers are clearly closer to the PM than others.
  • Another recent phenomenon is one whereby the electorate focus on the head of the government rather than the government as a collective, suggesting that we have a de facto single executive.
  • The quasi-Head of State thesis. Journalist Peter Oborne criticised the Blair government’s attempt toportray the PM, not the Queen, as head of state.
  • A recent change in the style of governance, accelerated by Blair as PM whereby he extended the habit of taking personal control over departmental affairs: ‘he saw himself as the white knight, charging in to solve problems, rather than leaving it to the relevant minister’ (Norton).
  • Michael Foley developed the theory of spatial leadership (based on his study of how US Presidents attempt to overcome the limited formal powers they have domestically) in order to explain how UK premiers have adapted and adopted techniques used by American presidents in order to overcome the constitutional limitations on their power.

The following points suggest that Prime Ministers have not become more powerful/more like presidents.

  • The office of Prime Minister is too much for one person and it is unrealistic to suspect that they will be able to control the entire apparatus of government.
  • There was one major stumbling block when attaching the prime ministerial/presidential thesis to Blair: Brown. Blair was unique amongst modern PMs in having no economic adviser. Kavanagh writes: ‘For such a so-called presidential figure Blair was blocked in key areas. The Chancellor carved out a measure of autonomy hardly ever achieved by a minister. Certain departments were regarded as Brown preserves...’.
  • A Prime Minister would be unwise to disregard Cabinet (overlap with Cabinet appointments here): The need for some sort of balance politically in order to appease wings of the party/a PM must maintain support of party heavyweights.
  • Whilst there has been a growth in the Downing Street apparatus, little realistic comparison can be made between the resources and staff available to the Prime Minister and the Executive Office of the President.
  • Related to the above point, media machine growth (both in the stature of the communications offices, and scale of operations) is a natural reaction to the development of the 24/7 media age.
  • The power a PM can wield, or the capacity to act in a presidential manner, is one which fluctuates. This ebb and flow is visible not only between premiers but within premierships. George Jones has compared the PM’s power to an elastic band, which stretches depending on personality and circumstances.
  • Another theory that has been applied to the power of the Prime Minister debate is Pareto’s idea about a “circulation of elites”. Pareto, pace Machiavelli, attempted to explain the nature of political change when arguing that a powerful group rises to power, decays, and then is replaced by another group.
  • Alternatively we could suggest that the public becomes tired of leaders after an extended period of time and demand change. Some political commentators have put forward the so called “10 year rule”.
  • Foley’s theory of presidentialism and “leadership stretch” can be a double edged sword, and lead to a decline in power. Blair’s conscious attempt to create a singular focus on his personal leadership beyond the normal framework of institutional governance left him exposed when things went wrong, i.e. after the Iraq invasion.
  • PMs may have become more presidential in style, thus giving the impression of massively increased power. But important constitutional differences remain between UK premiers and US president, principally due to the separation of powers.
  • Constitutional scholars have been arguing for decades that the PM v Cabinet debate is outmoded and analysis of power relations should not be viewed as a zero sum game that is all about the personality of the Prime Minister. A far more sophisticated analysis would move beyond this binary game and incorporate study of the core executive, and the nature of power dependency within it.

Liz Truss as PM: the context

A brief summary of the points covered in class before we placed Truss as PM in the essay.

  • In the UK, economic sovereignty, and thus the capacity of the Prime Minister to control economic policy to any significant degree, in an era of globalisation is a myth.
  • No country has true economic sovereignty: UK monetary and fiscal policy is determined by, or at least strongly influenced by, external forces. Other organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and OPEC, exert a stronger influence on macroeconomic policy than our domestic leadership.
  • Then in the case of Liz Truss as Prime Minister, she spectacularly failed to fully consider the reaction of the financial markets (specifically, the bond markets), who reacted badly to the announcement that the government was to slash taxes without also addressing unprecedented public spending levels.
  • True, it was initially labelled as Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget, since as Chancellor, he made the Commons announcement, and was sent out to defend the plans in the media. But in reality it was Truss as PM (heavily influenced by the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, and surrounded by a small bunch of special advisers) that was driving things. As a result, attention very quickly focused on Truss as PM, and as many of the measures in the budget were reversed, her personal standing collapsed.
  • Reminder: one national newspaper carried a livestream asking the public to consider if Liz Truss would survive longer as PM than a lettuce on a shelf.

Conclusions on Truss and essay content?

In terms of analysis, therefore, we considered this to be an example of how the power of the PM is a double-edged sword. In other words, the presidentialisation (going back to Foley's thesis) of the office accentuates periods of success and failure.

And in terms of evaluation the Truss premiership is yet more evidence that the power of the PM ebbs and flows, and it flowed from Truss as PM in chaotic and spectacular fashion.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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