The Power of the Prime Minister: 50 Years on

Authors:

With a new Prime Minister taking office today, The Constitution Society is publishing a pamphlet providing a timely discussion of the nature of the British Premiership.

A little over 50 years ago in 1965 the journal Parliamentary Affairs published an article by George Jones titled “The Prime Minister’s Power”. He wrote it against a then fashionable view. According to this outlook the British Constitution had radically changed. It was held that the power of the prime minister had grown to such an extent that it had supplanted cabinet government with a system of almost presidential government or of an elected monarch. Contrary to such theses Jones concluded “The Prime Minister is the leading figure in the Cabinet whose voice carries most weight. But he is not the all-powerful individual which many have claimed him to be. His office has great potentialities, but the use made of them depends on many variables, the personality, temperament, and ability of the Prime Minister, what he wants to achieve and the methods he uses. It depends also on his colleagues, their personalities and temperaments and abilities, what they want to do and their methods. A Prime Minister who can carry his colleagues with him can be in a very powerful position, but he is only as strong as they let him be.” This last sentence has been much quoted in later years, especially by students writing their essays. This pamphlet updates the Jones thesis. Taking into account all that has transpired in the intervening period, it concludes that the basic principle Jones advanced in 1965 remains true.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.