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Administering the Summit: the British Prime Minister’s Office

  • Christopher Clifford
Part of the Transforming Government book series (TRGO)

Abstract

The power of the prime minister in the British system of government can be formidable. The extent to which this is true was reflected in Lord Hailsham’s now famous use of the phrase, ‘elective dictatorship’ as the title to his 1976 Dimbleby Lecture. The response by some has been to advocate the establishment of a ‘constitutional premiership’.1 This concentration of power depends, on the whole, not on formal legal responsibilities, but on constitutional conventions, some derived from prerogative powers.2 By convention a prime minister has authority to appoint and dismiss ministers, or formally power to make recommendations to the Crown on a range of appointments. The prime minister has control over Cabinet meetings — over the order of the agenda, the frequency of meetings, the content of discussions to a degree, and the extent to which informal ad hoc meetings substitute for discussions at main Cabinet or Cabinet committees.3 A prime minister has a pre-eminent public profile, through influence over press relations and, importantly, through show-pieces such as prime minister’s question time every Wednesday. The prime minister increasingly has an important part to play in international summitry and in bilateral relations with other heads of state, and also has the right of audience with the Sovereign.4

Keywords

Prime Minister Civil Servant Private Office Policy Unit Deputy Prime Minister 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    T. Benn, ‘The Case for a Constitutional Premiership’, Parliamentary Affairs, 33 (1980), pp. 7–22.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    R. Brazier, Constitutional Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 66–92.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    A. King, ‘The British Prime Ministership in the Age of the Career Politician’, West European Politics (1991), p. 33. The prime minister has both final operational and budgetary responsibility for the security services. See HMSO, Central Intelligence Machinery (London: HMSO, 1996) for a bland, yet useful descriptive account of the notional accountability of the intelligence services.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Ever since the John Mackintosh/Richard Crossman thesis took off in debates about the demise of Cabinet government in 1962, journalistic and academic commentaries have tended to lurch towards characterizations of ‘presidentialization’ when prime ministers have been seen to exert strong policy leadership styles. The debate has once again been stimulated by the coming to power of the Blair government. See, for example, P. Hennessy, ‘The Blair Style of Government: An Historical Perspective and an Interim Audit’, Government and Opposition, 33:1 (1998), pp. 3–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 10.
    Prime ministers have at times drawn support and advice from family members (Gladstone’s two sons acted as his secretaries and Churchill’s son-in-law, Christopher Soames, acted as Parliamentary Private Secretary), medical and legal advisers (Harold Wilson’s doctor, Sir Joseph Stone, and lawyer, Lord Goodman, acted as close confidants), and even mistresses. See G. W. Jones, ‘The Prime Minister’s Advisers’, Political Studies, xxi (1973), pp. 373–4.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Burch and Holliday suggest that a crucial question in assessing the role of the Cabinet Office is ‘in whose interests are Cabinet Office powers being wielded? Put crudely: does the Cabinet Office primarily serve the cabinet or the prime minister?’ They suggest that ‘the chief focus’ is the prime minister’. See M. Burch and I. Holliday, The British Cabinet System (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996), pp. 34–5.Google Scholar
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    Term used by Patrick Gordon Walker. See P. Gordon Walker, The Cabinet (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970).Google Scholar
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    G. W. Jones, ‘The United Kingdom’, in W. Plowden (ed.), Advising the Rulers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. 68.Google Scholar
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    See T. Blackstone and W. Plowden, Inside the Think Tank: Advising the Cabinet 1971–83 (London: Heinemann, 1988).Google Scholar
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    Their precise influence on policy formation is, of course, difficult in practice to isolate. See D. Stone, ‘From the Margins of Politics: the Influence of Think-Tanks in Britain’, West European Politics, 19/4 (1996) pp. 675–92. For an account of the role of right-wing think-tanks, see R. Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931–198 (London: Fontana Press, 1995).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    G. W. Jones, ‘The Prime Minister’s Men’, New Society, 19 January (1978), p. 121.Google Scholar
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    G. W. Jones, ‘The Prime Minister’s Aides’, in A. King (ed.), The British Prime Minister (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985), p. 86.Google Scholar
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    D. Willetts, ‘The Role of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit’, Public Administration, 65/4 (1987), p. 129.Google Scholar
  17. 38.
    Work on the idea of a Citizen’s Charter was begun in February 1991 under the direction of Sarah (now Baroness) Hogg, Head of the Policy Unit. The unit was also responsible for the expression ‘Citizen’s Charter’. See S. Hogg and J. Hill, Too Close to Call: Power and Politics — John Major in No. 10 (London: Warner, 1995), p. 94.Google Scholar
  18. 48.
    G. W. Jones, ‘The Prime Minister’s Secretaries: Politicians or Administrators?’, in J. A. G. Griffith (ed.), From Policy to Administration: Essays in Honour of William A. Robson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 17.Google Scholar
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    See particularly, Sir K. Berrill, Strength at the Centre — The Case for a Prime Minister’s Department, the Stamp Memorial Lecture delivered before the University of London on 4 December 1980 (London: University of London, 1980).Google Scholar
  20. 55.
    C. King, The Cecil King Diary, 1965–1970 (London: Jonathan Cape), pp. 31–2. On 15 August 1965, King recalls Wilson’s apparent complaint that No. 10 was poorly staffed. There was some suggestion of a Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s Department.Google Scholar
  21. 57.
    L. Baston and A. Seldon, ‘Number 10 under Edward Heath’, in A. Seldon and S. Ball, The Heath Government (London: Longman, 1996), pp. 47–8.Google Scholar
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    C. Pollitt, Manipulating the Machine (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983), p. 123.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher Clifford

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