In previous posts, we have discussed Parliament and the constitution – this week, we will consider the executive branch of government, so named because it is responsible for executing and enforcing laws. In the UK, this is centred on the Prime Minister and their cabinet, though it extends out to a host of other bodies. We look at these two key components in turn, and see how they relate back to the concepts and bodies we discussed previously, as well as trying to understand how they interact with each other.
Whilst the post of Prime Minister sits at the very top of government, and commands considerable public attention, most of their powers do not come from statute or common law, but rather from convention. They are exercised on behalf of the monarch, who appoints the Prime Minister – who has traditionally been the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. So long as they are able to retain the support of a majority of MPs, the Prime Minister and their government should remain in power – by convention, if they lose this support (known as confidence), they would resign. Their powers range from appointing ministers to head government departments, through to attending international summits, and on to dispensing patronage through the honours system (knighthoods, MBEs, and so on).
The most important of these powers is the Prime Minister’s power to appoint and dismiss other members of the executive – ministers, who either head or help to oversee government departments. There are currently over 100 ministers, all of whom are appointed by the Prime Minister. By convention, these ministers are drawn from Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons – by necessity, it may be that the Prime Minister has to include certain MPs in government, in order to appease party factions, or may be forced to exclude others on political grounds. Nevertheless, this is a formidable power, and allows a Prime Minister to shape the government to suit their policy preferences and desired direction of travel for the country.
The next key power to consider is the Prime Minister’s role as chair of the cabinet. In this role, the Prime Minister determines who can attend cabinet, when its meetings will be heard, what will be on the agenda, and will sum up its discussions. This is not a process that involves a formal vote – it is rather rare for Prime Ministers to seek a vote in cabinet on any point. As we shall go to see, the ability of a Prime Minister to mould their ministerial team and the cabinet as an institution has considerable importance.
The other powers of a Prime Minister include their ability to appoint senior civil servants – they decide who the senior civil servant will be in each department (the permanent secretary) and it is only with their approval that a minister can have a senior civil servant moved. They also represent the country at international summits, such as those of the European Council, granting them considerable influence over foreign policy. Finally, we should remember the media and political attention that comes with being Prime Minister – giving one access to a significant reserve of influence to try and shape the direction of the country, and of policy in Parliament.
There are, however, a variety of restraints in place on the Prime Minister. They attend a weekly questioning session in the House of Commons, known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), as well as making annual appearances before a Parliamentary committee called the Liaison Committee. They are required to retain the support of a majority of the House of Commons – and the support of their party colleagues. If either of these fail, then they can find themselves removed from office, and often find the agenda set after their departure contrasting with much they had laid down.
The cabinet is the collective decision-making body that the Prime Minister chairs. It serves three key functions; finally determining what will be submitted to Parliament by the government, overall control of the executive in line with what Parliament agrees, and co-ordination between the many component parts of the state. It meets on Tuesdays, in the cabinet room in Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister in London.
Its composition is decided by the Prime Minister – who has broad scope to make and unmake the government departments that ministers run. For example, since 2007, the department responsible for overseeing universities has been, in order – the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and now the Department for Education. Very few departments do not experience this process, which is driven entirely by the Prime Minister’s desire to shape government, with the exception of the Treasury. It is traditional that all the heads of government departments are members of the cabinet – the Prime Minister can also ask a range of other ministers to attend. Currently, there are 23 members of the cabinet, and 4 others who attend.
As with the Prime Minister, the cabinet’s powers and functions exist by convention. Aside from the key functions laid out above, to which we will return in a moment, two other key conventions apply. The first is one already stated – if the government loses the support (confidence) of the House of Commons, it will resign. The second is the principle of collective responsibility, which states that once a decision has been made by cabinet, all members collectively accept responsibility for it, even if they disagreed prior to the decision being made. Ministers who cannot do this are expected to resign, or will be removed by the Prime Minister if they openly disagree after the decision is taken.
In executing its three key duties outlined above, cabinet faces a huge workload – the UK government is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of spending, almost 3 million public sector employees, and of course the executing and enforcing of a vast array of laws and regulations. As a single committee, cabinet and its members would struggle to cope with this workload – so two tiers of support are in place. First are junior ministers; every departmental head has a number of these, with whom they can share their workload, delegating particular areas of their department to the junior minister. Secondly, there are the cabinet committees – these are made of members of the cabinet, and perhaps some junior ministers as well. They are constituted by the Prime Minister, and assigned particular areas of responsibility. Like cabinet, they are there to assist in determining policy, ensuring it is implemented, and co-ordinating policy on a variety of areas – they act to clarify issues before the main cabinet decides them, dividing up the workload. Decisions of cabinet committees have the same power as those of full cabinet, and matters are only referred from them to the whole cabinet if the chair agrees.
We have seen that the UK’s executive branch, particularly the Prime Minister, has considerable powers at their disposal to make and change government, and to set the direction of the country. We have also seen how they shape the cabinet, which in turn serves a key function at the heart of the executive – as a body to make decisions, oversee the operation of government, and settle disputes. When they operate together, government can deliver policy quickly, effectively, and with an assurance of easy passage through Parliament. Disunity between them, however, can lead to disorder and perhaps even the fall of ministers – or the Prime Minister themselves.