The Prime Ministerial Power Thesis and its Implications for Journalists.

The Prime Ministerial Power Thesis is the suggestion that the power, in this particular case, Tony Blair, is too much and it may have considerable implications for investigative journalists.

In 1997 Tony Blair won over 300 votes in the House of Commons. The oppositional parties were in disarray. Poll ratings remained high and he went on to win his second election in 2001. The Prime Minister is the First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service. He is the national leader (representing the nation abroad, including international conferences) and is still head of the Labour party.

The House of Commons

This is where one must consider the power thesis implications which has been debated for decades but significantly intensified during the Thatcher and Blair years. Unlike America, whereby the President’s powers are defined by a written constitution, the powers of the Prime Minister are the product of convention and historical evolution. Many Cabinet Ministers are complaining that our Parliamentary system is now moving towards that of a Presidential system. This is most likely because of the increasing lack of importance for Cabinet, for instance Mrs Thatcher, when Prime Minister, used to bully Cabinet and would present decisions to Cabinet as a ‘fait accompli’, meaning that the decision had already been made and will not be reversed. This is known as the power of dissolution, meaning that while the Prime Minister has to consult Cabinet, he or she ultimately makes the decision such as the date of an election within a five year period, to his advantage. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s authority is meant to be balanced by Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Cabinet and the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility; meaning that the PM must report to the House of Commons and Cabinet, except in matters of national security. Yet, as illustrated above, this is not always the case and, as a result, what the Prime Minister does with the powers he or she has is more or less frequently up to him. It is indeed true that the Office bestows considerable powers upon him, including first and foremost, patronage, the right to dissolve Parliament and the control over the organisation of government and the business of Cabinet. Within these sectors he has even more power. Case in point, for his control over the organization of the government he controls the Cabinet membership, the agendas, structure of Ministries and departments and controls the whips in the House of Commons through ‘pay votes’ and ‘whips’ whereby politicians belonging to a particular party must attend a vote in Parliament and vote in the way in which they are instructed by the Prime Minister Blair. Moreover, Labour MPs and Cabinet ministers are required to be ‘on message’ meaning that they are told what to do and say during interviews about Mr Blair and thus the interview is somewhat demeaning if you consider that the answers are pre-rehearsed and advised by others.

Tony Blair, Former British Prime Minister

Moreover, the Prime Minister has the power to employ twenty to thirty percent of MPs of his choice, who will all obviously be of the same party as him. This is therefore evidence of the weakening of Parliament and the advancement of a presidential system. In addition, since Tony Blair became Prime Minister he has voted in less than five percent of House of Commons debates. Likewise, Cabinet meetings under Blair last less than one hour per week.

Rather than journalists commenting on the Prime Ministers decision-making in Parliament there is a danger of the commentary becoming all about the man rather than the judgments. Conversely the decisions that Tony Blair currently appears to be making with regards to the establishment of a new national anti-terrorist unit to protect VIP’s, with power to detain suspects indefinitely by using mental health laws seems sinister. Detainees only have a limited right of appeal. He has so little time left in Office and these methods smack of mediaeval dictatorship. Certainly the perception is that this law is self-serving as political murder is not, as yet, a big problem in Britain. Perhaps he is thinking of his future in retirement?

In an age of instant telecommunications, the Prime Minister has become a media superstar, attracting enormous media attention. A significant part of the success or failure of Prime Ministers in the post-war period has been their ability to cultivate the media, especially television, and to create an ‘image’ to which the electorate will respond. Some would say that Tony Blair has become a television personality that distracts journalists from writing anything of political interest, focusing instead on his home life and holiday destinations. However, this style of Prime Minister has undoubtedly evolved from the success of Presidential candidates, especially John F Kennedy, whose family was photographed in the Oval Office and became loved by the Nation.

John F. Kennedy with his children

It is worrying state of affairs for journalists if you consider that their jobs are becoming less about politics and more about personalities, especially if you consider that, Will Smith, the American actor, jokingly maintains that he would be voted in as President on popularity alone if he wished to enter the race.


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