Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Digested Read

Why we Shouldn’t Expect Too Much From Prime Ministers

Nicholas Allen


Arno Mikkor

| 6 mins read

Anthony King thought and wrote a great deal about British prime ministers and political leadership. As Britain grapples with the challenge of Brexit, we should all take note of his counsel, especially against expecting too much in the way of ‘strong’ prime ministerial leadership.

At the time of his death, King was working on a long‐planned book-length study of the British prime ministership. The premise was to explore the styles and records of Britain's postwar premiers. Chapters dealing with Attlee, Churchill and Eden had been drafted; those covering Macmillan through Cameron had not.

The book would have been the culmination of a career-long interest in the office and its holders. King’s previous writings had always drawn on a remarkable understanding of real‐world practice. He had met most of Britain's postwar prime ministers and enjoyed access to some of the circles in which they moved.

Three categories of prime ministerial writings

King's earlier work on the subject generally fell into—and often straddled—one of three broad categories. In the first category were a number of essays that focused on the prime ministership as an institution. During the early 1990s, for instance, King wrote about the conflicting principles that structured Britain's political executive, how and when prime ministers impinged upon ministerial autonomy, and the power of British prime ministers compared with that of other ‘chief executives’ in Western Europe. The last of these essays argued that the British prime minister was one of the most powerful.

The second category of King's work included essays that focused on prime ministers as political operators. In a 2010 article, for example, he examined how different prime ministers had used their power of dismissal – and found that Margaret Thatcher had been far more likely than others to sack ministers on ideological or policy grounds.

The third broad category of King's work included essays that focused not so much on the job or those who did it, but on the getting of the job. King was very interested in the question of how and why parties selected their leaders. He thought that party members look “for the person who will lead the party best rather than the person who will lead the country best. The issue of who would make ‘the best prime minister’ … scarcely arises.”

The ‘presidentialisation’ of the office?

In his 2007 book The British Constitution, King robustly dismissed the idea that the prime ministership had become a “super presidency”. Rather, the office was simply what it had been for a long time: the headship of government in a parliamentary system that was capable of sustaining dominant leaders.

There had always been dominant prime ministers, and there had always been weaker prime ministers. John Major followed Margaret Thatcher, just as Lord Rosebery had followed William Gladstone a century earlier.

Higher expectations of prime ministers

King’s work also touched on the expectations surrounding prime ministers. There can be little doubt that many voters, journalists and politicians expect a great deal from them—and certainly much more than their counterparts of a century ago. Many people seemingly expect prime ministers to provide a clear sense of policy direction. They expect prime ministers to manage and dominate their colleagues. They expect prime ministers to respond to all emergencies and resolve all problems. In short, many people expect them to be strong leaders.

Consequences of high expectations

The general consequences of high expectations are all too clear. First, like all unrealistic expectations, they are likely to be a source of disappointment. Second, trying to meet expectations may to lead to dysfunctional behaviour. The logic and rules of British government are not designed around a single strong chief executive. There is no large personal staff to advise prime ministers, coordinate policy and ensure decisions are implemented.

Moreover, if prime ministers try to concentrate decision making in their hands, they may increase the incidence of delayed and potentially flawed decisions. Third, if prime ministers seek to dominate colleagues, they will create enemies who may be more minded to strike if or when things go awry.

In his last published article, King looked at the relationship between ‘strong’ and ‘successful’ executive leadership, and concluded that the relationship in Britain was ‘tenuous and may even, possibly, be negative’.

He wrote these words before Theresa May succeeded David Cameron as Conservative leader and prime minister in 2016. Needless to say, May's imported from the Home Office her closed, controlling and—in the words of Kenneth Clarke—’bloody difficult’ style of leadership. In the process, she alienated many in her party and showed little inclination to build a broad consensus around what form Britain's post‐Brexit relationship with the EU should take.

Moreover, her promise of ‘strong and stable’ leadership backfired enormously during the 2017 general election. She was demonstrably neither. When her authority evaporated with her party's majority, any idea of prime ministerial dominance flew out the window.

For the country as a whole, a more inclusive style might have produced a better negotiating strategy and increased the likelihood of a better final deal.

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    Nicholas Allen

    Nicholas Allen is a Reader in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London.

    Articles by Nicholas Allen
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