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Cabinet Essay (Dated Sept-Oct 2008)

Cabinet Essay (Dated Sept-Oct 2008)

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Published by Michael Foley
This essay looks at the debate regarding Britain's style of government - is it cabinet or Prime Ministerial based? Bear in mind that this was written in 2008, so I could not properly examine Gordon Brown's style of governance.
This essay looks at the debate regarding Britain's style of government - is it cabinet or Prime Ministerial based? Bear in mind that this was written in 2008, so I could not properly examine Gordon Brown's style of governance.

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Published by: Michael Foley on May 14, 2010
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“Britain has Cabinet not Prime Ministerial Government.”Discuss.
Primus inter pares - first among equals. Does this phrase still hold relevance in UK  politics or has Cabinet government had its day? By analyzing the Cabinet-Prime Minister relationships under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair this essay will attempt to draw conclusions on their respective governments andsubsequently summarise that Britain has either Cabinet-based or Prime Ministerial (onecould say “Presidential”) government.The 1979 general election resulted in a Conservative party victory, which began aneighteen year reign for the Tories. The first eleven years of this era was of course under the leadership of the “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher has been regarded as avery authoritative figure with a “my way or the highway” approach with her Tory peers.When it came to her Cabinet, political analyst Peter Riddell states in the book 
TheThatcher Effect 
that
“Mrs Thatcher rarely uses the Cabinet to discuss major issues, but treats it more as a reporting session on decisions…or for routine briefings”
1
. Thisimplies that Thatcher’s style of government was more akin to Prime Ministerial thanCabinet. This was further demonstrated in 1981 when she made her first Cabinetreshuffle: those who were inclined with the previous Tory Prime Minister EdwardHeath’s economic policies were removed, such as Sir Ian Gilmour, Mark Carlisle andLord Soames. They were replaced by people who Thatcher believed would agree with her  policies. People such as Norman Tebbit, Cecil Parkinson and Nigel Lawson were broughtinto the Cabinet. This reshuffle was made to
“enable Mrs Thatcher to pursue her conviction politics with less internal opposition and with like-minded allies.”
2
 
The factthat the word “allies” is present here gives connotations of Thatcher being like a militarygeneral, let alone a Prime Minister, thus farther pulling her government away from theCabinet bracket and closer to Prime Ministerial.The 1986 Westland scandal was the strongest indication of Thatcher’s style of government. The controversy was based on the future of financially-struggling Westland,the last operating British helicopter manufacturer. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine backed Westland to merge with European companies whereas Thatcher (along with theTrade and Industry Secretary Leon Brittan) preferred the company to join up with theAmerican manufacturers Sikorsky. The conflict between Heseltine and Thatcher resultedin the former emphatically resigning from his Cabinet position and storming out of aJanuary Cabinet meeting. Heseltine chose not to endorse in collective responsibility. Thisconcept means that all Cabinet members, regardless of their own personal opinions, mustunite with the decision made by the Prime Minister. If a Cabinet member such asHeseltine in the Westland affair will not stand by the Prime Minister, then he or she must promptly stand down from the Cabinet. The importance of this concept was proven
1
Anthony Seldon/Dennis Kavanagh, “The Thatcher Effect”, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989), p102
2
Anthony Seldon/Dennis Kavanagh, “The Thatcher Effect”, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989), p103
 
through the intense press coverage this scandal caused: although Thatcher emphasisedthat she was a Prime Minister not to be opposed by her party peers, the negative pressdamaged her party’s image. It was only four years later, after losing the support of her  party and Cabinet ministers, that Thatcher stood down and gave way for John Major.To summarise Thatcher’s government, her authoritative style and effective Cabinetreshuffles demonstrated her preference for little opposition to her policies. It can beconcluded, therefore, that this Prime Minister’s style was more Prime Ministerial thanCabinet.When Thatcher stepped down from office in 1990, it was time for John Major to take thereins of the Conservative government. Political analyst Dennis Kavanagh states thatMajor’s leadership
“was marked by his collegial approach to Cabinet”
3
.
This illustratesMajor’s completely different leadership style compared to his strong-willed predecessor.An example of his government handling could be seen through his appointment of Cabinet ministers who held varying opinions on government policy. Whereas Thatcher only appointed “dries” (hard-line free marketers) and Euroskeptics to her Cabinet, Major retained some of those ministers but also drafted in “wets” (supporters of increased public spending) and Europhiles for a more balanced Conservative Cabinet. The authorsof the book 
The new British Politics
collectively state that Major’s Cabinet reshuffle
“succeeded in healing political wounds and unifying the government.”
4
 
The Torygovernment badly needed a
“stabaliser”
5
 
due to the internal bickering over issues such asthe European Union and the economy. Major’s focus on Cabinet-style governmentemphasised his desire to unite his party as a team, making them better organised withmembers having an equal say on government policy.However, his leadership style and his relationship with Cabinet ministers began to waneafter the 1991 Gulf War. The press and political analysts started to criticise hisleadership, calling him
“grey, weak and ineffective”
.
Major’s efforts to unify his divided party with a relaxed and reassuring approach enabled Cabinet ministers such as JohnRedwood (Secretary of State for Wales) and Michael Portillo (Secretary of State for Defence) to voice criticism about his leadership – such actions in a Prime Ministerialgovernment would have resulted in prompt dismissals. Leader of the opposition partyTony Blair closed a January 1997 Commons debate by repeatedly calling Major 
“weak,weak, weak.”
The lack of collective discipline testified that Major’s style was notauthoritarian – like Thatcher – but more “democratic”, preferring to work closely with hisCabinet.
3
Bill Jones/Dennis Kavanagh/Michael Moran/Philip Norton, “Politics UK Sixth Edition”, (PearsonLongman, 2007), p496
4
Ian Budge/Ivor Crewe/David McKay/Ken Newton, “The new British Politics”, (Addison WesleyLongman Ltd, 1998), p216
5
Bill Jones/Dennis Kavanagh/Michael Moran/Philip Norton, “Politics UK Sixth Edition”, (PearsonLongman, 2007), p496
6
Ian Budge/Ivor Crewe/David McKay/Ken Newton, “The new British Politics”, (Addison WesleyLongman Ltd, 1998), p216
7
OpenPolitics, “Tony Blair vs. John Major 1995/1997” <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpZhugomNJE>
 
Major’s government can be concluded as being Cabinet-based rather than PrimeMinisterial, which was a big contribution in the Conservative party’s downfall at the1997 general election. New Prime Minister, new style of government. Clues of how Tony Blair would run hisgovernment were evident during his time as opposition party leader, when according tohis leading biographer Professor Anthony Seldon, he “
had got his own way on virtuallyall issues and debates and had successfully marginalized most of his party critics. As Prime Minister he wanted no less.”
8
 
One could anticipate that Blair was going to run aPrime Ministerial government, even before he had entered number 10. Some have gone a bit further in describing Blair’s leadership style: Peter Riddell for instance said
“Goodbye to Cabinet government, welcome to the Blair Presidency.”
9
 
Blair’s frequentuse of spin and consultations with Communications and Strategy Director Alistair Campbell demonstrated his desire to forge a good relationship with the media, a similar tactic regularly employed by the American President.In regards to Blair and his Cabinet, political analyst Paul Fawcett states that
“the aim of the Cabinet Office was to allow Blair to remain on top, if not in detailed touch.”
Effectively, the Cabinet was reduced to
“rubber stamping”
 
Blair’s decisions accordingto the late Mo Mowlam. Rather than consult with his Cabinet, Blair preferred private bilateral meetings with ministers and powerful people. For instance, when the decisionwas made to ban tobacco advertising in 2000, Blair held a meeting with Formula Onechief organiser Bernie Ecclestone without the involvement of his Cabinet. A compromisewas made: Formula One racing would still be allowed to advertise tobacco. This causedoutrage especially with Tessa Jowell, the junior minister involved, as she along withmany others opposed the decision. There have been other decisions made withoutCabinet consultation including postponing the Euro and reducing the lone parent benefit.Even projects like the Millennium Dome were given the go-ahead despite the majority of Blair’s Cabinet having little confidence in its success. His dominant approach iscomically rounded up in a cartoon in the September 2005 edition of Politics Reviewmagazine: Blair is portrayed as a power crazed dalek, saying
“I do not rule by dik-tat”
with other daleks – portraying his Cabinet ministers – saying the exact same thing withreference to their leader. The monotone voices associated with these machines and thefact that they are robots further emphasises the point that Blair “programs” hisgovernment to do what he says. However, Blair’s Cabinet ministers did not always bowto collective responsibility: Claire Short and Robin Cook for instance both resigned from
8
Anthony Seldon/Dennis Kavanagh, “The Powers behind the Prime Minister: the hidden influence of number 10”, (HarperCollins Ltd, 1999), p241
9
Bill Jones, “Tony Blair’s style of government: an interim assessment”, (Oxford University Press, 1999), p72
10
Anthony Seldon, “Blair’s Britain 1997-2007”, (Cambridge University Press, 2007) p86
11
Anthony Seldon/Dennis Kavanagh, “The Powers behind the Prime Minister: the hidden influence of number 10”, (HarperCollins Ltd, 1999), p242
12
Steve Bell, “I do not rule by dik-tat”, Politics Review September 2005 edition, (Philip Allan Ltd, 2005), p15

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