Why the Prime Minister Cannot be President: Comparing Institutional Imperative in Britain and America

Parliamentary Affairs (Impact Factor: 0.64). 01/2005; 58(1). DOI: 10.1093/pa/gsi006
Source: OAI


The notion of presidentialisation, applied to the British Prime Minister, usually focuses more on the personal style of the of the officeholder, less on the institutional substance of the office itself. The Prime Minister is the product of the British parliamentary system, and this system—and the institutional structures it imposes—provides for and circumscribes his or her powers. Comparing Britain with the US demonstrates that in executive-legislative terms a British Prime Minister is more commanding than any US President, while in intra-executive terms the President is more powerful. The presidentialisation notion fails to acknowledge that its legislative purchase makes the British parliamentary executive more authoritative than its US presidential counterpart. Should, as is often but not always the case, a Prime Minister be able to lead his or her executive, determine its key decisions, shape its agenda and guide the work of its ministers, he or she will be a more influential actor than the President. Systemic differences distinguish Prime Ministers from Presidents. Britain does not have a presidential system, so it cannot have a presidential chief executive.

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    ABSTRACT: Institutions cannot be understood without exploring the actors who occupy them, while actors cannot be understood without examining the institutions they inhabit. Ultimately, the actions of both institutions and actors cannot be understood separate to the political, social and economic context within which they are located. Tony Blair, rightly cited as an example of a powerful prime minister, does not have a monopoly of power, but he does have an extensive authority. The prime minister requires two things to operate effectively within Whitehall and Westminster: first, power over their parliamentary majority; and second, power within the government they lead. Because this power is contested and challenged, the age-old question, the actual degree of collegiality within government, is as central to contemporary debates about the working of the core executive as to the ancient debate about prime ministerial versus cabinet government. The prime minister is therefore best modelled as a strong, but sometimes weak, parliamentary chief executive.
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