UK Government Executives


The personnel that handles the day running of the country and provide leadership in terms of the direction of government policy and responses to events. Headed by the PM but also includes cabinet ministers, junior ministers, members of the senior ranks of the civil service and informally specialist advisors. By definition executive will usually command a majority in the Commons (either single party or part of a coalition – current example 2010 Con Dem Coalition) unless it is a caretaker/ minority administration – based on concept of a fusion of legislative and executive branches of government and powers. Ministers must be in Parliament, large majority MPs but outside experts can be brought in by being given a peerage (Mandelson 2008, Baron Sugar of Hackney, 2009).

The Prime Minister

Performs 3 key roles – leader of nation, head of government, and usually party leader (note the latter 2 can conflict). Basis of powers around royal prerogative that by convention unchecked by legislature. Note Brown’s proposals to open this up already established convention of Commons votes prior to troop deployment (following on from 2003 Iraq vote).

Formal powers – appointment (ministers, peers, senior civil servants, bishops and veto on senior judges – note Cameron and need to consult Clegg on Lib Dem appointments), signing foreign treaties and deploying troops abroad and heading cabinet. Note that power of dissolution has been suspended by Fixed Term Parliament Act. Not formally limited checks on these but in reality political pressures can limit scope for movement (e.g. cabinet appointment and reshuffles and parliamentary ratification of treaties). Degree of authority (informal powers) can impact upon exercise of PM power affected by public opinion, size of government majority and government and party unity. Compare Blair pre Iraq with post Iraq especially 2005 and also limits on Brown’s leadership (no direct mandate etc.). Cameron, without single party parliamentary majority lacks the ‘mandate’ of other PMs.

Models of PM power (not formally part of syllabus) explain why some PMs are presidential in style (Blair and Thatcher – see Foley and Crossman) but others more collegiate (Major and Brown – see Jones) and some place emphasis on flexibility (Norton – personality and circumstance or King cycles of public opinion). Use evidence from the last 5 PMs to illustrate use of or limits on PM power. Note the special circumstances of Cameron, his relationship with Clegg and the difficulty of managing a coalition.

The Cabinet

Central executive coordinating committee consisting of Ministers of state for each department and other senior government figures such as the Chief Whip and Leader of the Lords. Note Burch’s 4 key functions confirmation, coordination, arbitration and information sum up more specific role (some informal such as check on PM power).

Relationship with PM debate over rise of presidential power resulting in decline of cabinet government – note no formal constitutional change to the role of cabinet but extension in style of government (expansion of the central executive territory – Marwick) and in particular the power base of the PM (increased use of special advisors and sofa style government, bi-lateral meetings used by Blair and replicated by Cameron), also increasing personalisation of politics with media focus on PM. Cabinet meetings – number and length declined with PM still having capacity to set agenda sum up mood of meeting without a vote, steer contentious policies through cabinet committees. However cabinet constitutionally can overall PM (‘first among equals) and face them down (see Thatcher ERM and eventual pressure not to stand in 2nd ballot). Note also relationship not opposite – strong PM will have united and supportive cabinet behind them and a weak PM may suffer further from a divided and incompetent cabinet team. Note the way PMs operate according to circumstances (Cameron’s use of the ‘Quad’ for economic decisions outside of full cabinet).

Collective responsibility – based on Ministerial code of Conduct applies to all ministers including most junior (also similar policy amongst shadow cabinet). Designed to present government unity in which all must abide by decision agreed in cabinet. When unable to must resign (see Iraq and more recently ministerial resignations over style of Brown government). Convention undermined by off the record briefings (e.g.Vince Cable over business plans), agreements to differ and free votes (AV referendum). Give examples!

Ministers and civil service

Role of Senior Civil Servants – primarily policy advising with duty based on the principles of permanence, neutrality and anonymity. Armstrong memorandum deemed their public service is as is defined by the incumbent government. This has been changed and the new Code for Civil Servants 2002 is more relevant.

Relationship with ministers – Minister has ultimate advantage of making the final decision setting the agenda, use of personal advisors and utilising the political weight of the government, however civil servants do have advantage of greater experience, gate keeping , single focus and numerical weight of numbers. Number of models about relationship ranging from traditional service, left wing partisan bias and ‘Yes Minster’ bureaucratic. Nature of relationship has changed considerably. Highlight role of chief executives and the lack of anonymity (Theresa May’s relations with Brodie Clarke at Border Agency) and increasing politicisation (Gove’s appointment at DFE leading to resignation of 4 leading civil servants in that dept, etc).

Individual Ministerial Responsibility – another convention stemming from ministerial code of conduct. Ministers are politically accountable for the actions of their department( role responsibility) and their own conduct (personal responsibility). This accountability addressed through answering to Parliament (e.g. questions and committees) for their actions and those of their department, apologising for mistakes made and ultimately resignation. Convention seen to be undermined by hiving off responsibility to chief executives of executive agencies or civil servants (blaming policy delivery not formulation) or hiding behind collective responsibility. Note ministerial resignations mainly based around personal responsibility where loses confidence of PM (media and political pressure). Once again learn examples for each and DO NOT confuse with collective responsibility.

Key developments

Try and use contemporary examples for PM power and cabinet relations – note Brown’s difficulties including Gurkha defeat and threat of defeat over part-privatisation of Post Office (Cameron hasn’t lost any parliamentary votes yet but rebellions from Lib Dems over tuition fees and threat from Tory back benchers over House of Lords reform). Also be aware of potential challenges in light of electoral setbacks (note My 3rd Council election results) and criticism from back benchers (e.g. Nadine Dorris’ out of touch posh boys comment). You must refer to the coalition government and the difficulties facing Cameron in achieving a consensus on divisive issues (Osborne’s negotiations over the 2012 budget show difficulties of ‘two party’ government). Resignations are also more awkward (Clegg’s decision over replacement for David Laws) and the hire/fire powers of PM have been affected.

sign up to revision world banner