Throughout President Barack Obama’s trip to the United Kingdom he has inevitably been compared to our Prime Minister; David Cameron. This has led to further debate over whether the British system of government is moving into a more ‘Presidential’ system, writes Richard Maher.
This theory suggests that the British prime minister has now, effectively, become the head of state and dominates policy-making and the whole machinery of government, as Obama does in the USA. However, in his speech to Westminster, Obama talked about how “the nature of our leadership will have to change with the times”, and this supports those who disagree that the prime minister is becoming more presidential, and is merely modernising his style.
Firstly, it could be perceived that the Prime Minister is now the Head of State, like a President, because he now performs most of the functions that this would entail. The Queen, who Obama also met in an attempt to avoid undermining her position as the ‘official’ Head of State, has now handed over the majority of her powers to the Prime Minister due to the royal prerogative, and this gives Cameron powers such as the appointments and dismissals of ministers, the power of military control and foreign affairs. This makes him seem detached from his cabinet and the Conservative party which leads many to believe that, like Obama, he is the Head of State and therefore emphasises his image as a form of president.
Secondly, the Prime Minister has been deemed more presidential in recent times because the media tend to concentrate on him rather than the party as a whole. This is particularly relevant to Cameron’s election campaign which featured the first live television debates between him and his main competitors Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg. This placed a lot more attention on the individual and led to opinion polls rising and falling with the performance of each candidate, which saw Clegg’s impressive media skills enhance his opportunity of power, and Brown’s dwindle due to his less confident and charismatic approach.
The increasing media attention upon the Prime Minister has been particularly detrimental to Brown who saw his embarrassing reference to a “bigoted, old woman” aired live, leading to a loss of support, and eventually a loss in the election. This focus on the individual has led to a more presidential style of voting, where the man himself is the basis upon which many of the public vote, rather than the party. The perception of voting in the Prime Minister rather than the party and the fact that his character now seems to have such great impact upon whether he is elected also results in him appearing more presidential.
Thirdly, military affairs have become very important and, as the Prime Minister dominates these, he is portrayed as somewhat of a president. This argument was fiercely ignited when Tony Blair invaded Iraq despite substantial opposition, creating the perception of him as a President. However this could also draw some parallels to Cameron’s current democratic crusade, alongside President Obama, in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Prime Minister also dominates foreign policy, and this relates to the ‘special relationship’ with America which we have been convinced of so relentlessly this week. Close relationships between Presidents and Prime Ministers such as Blair and Bush, and “Roosevelt and Churchill”, whom Obama often referred to in his speech to Westminster, can now include that of Cameron and Obama, particularly following their rather artificial activities as a table tennis doubles-team. The ceremonious fashion in which both have met has provoked the assumption in the eyes of the media and the public that both are presidents. This is particularly prominent on this occasion as, with Obama being the first President to address Parliament, their different roles have been blurred.
Finally, Michael Foley’s theory of ‘spatial leadership’ also presents the Prime Minister presidentially. This term indicates that the Prime Minister makes himself an ‘outsider’ to government and follows his own ideology, hence the creation of “Thatcherism” during Margaret Thatcher’s reign, “Blairism” during that of Tony Blair’s, who demonstrated his dominance by changing traditional cabinet meetings to only once a week and for a shorter period of time, and the current, perhaps less distinctive ideology of “Cameronism”. This portrays the Prime Ministers as separate from government and as following their own, individual political direction, similarly to a President.
On the other hand, many argue that the prime minister has not become more presidential as his role has never actually changed. For example, Tony Blair’s charismatic style, perhaps leading him to be more easily compared to the impressively engaging Obama than our current Prime Minister, led to advocates of the presidential thesis in the UK. However, when Brown took over, he tried to transfer powers back to the cabinet and Parliament, proving that the role has not actually changed to become more presidential, and that it is only the style of Prime Ministers which sometimes changes.
Also, the fact that there are important forces which reign in the Prime Minister can be used to argue that the Prime Minister is not more presidential. As Obama opened his speech to Westminster, he referred to the institution in which he was standing as “the mother of all Parliaments” in awe of its power, but perhaps also in pity of Cameron who would have to struggle against it if he decided to take a radically presidential approach.
Parliament is able to effectively check executive power and the Prime Minister and his Cabinet’s role. When Margaret Thatcher’s style became too overpowering in her attempt to implement poll tax, her cabinet and Parliament were able to displace her from her position. This links to the ‘elastic theory’ which suggests that when the Prime Minister gains too much power, they can be restricted. Obama and the Presidents who have preceded him have not had to deal with this and therefore it undermines the theory that the UK Prime Minister has become more Presidential.
Additionally, officially, the Prime Minister is not actually the Head of State and can therefore not be considered Presidential. Although the Queen has delegated many of her powers to the Prime Minister, she is still the ultimate Head of State and withholds the function of appointing the Prime Minister. David Cameron would’ve had to have had an invitation from the Queen inviting him to become the Prime Minister before he could assume the role. And, although it would cause outrage due to the monarch being an undemocratic, unelected body, they could still technically resume some powers to undermine the Prime Minister. This suggests that the Prime Minister had not become more Presidential as a President doesn’t have this form of power above him.
Overall, however, the evidence suggests that David Cameron’s role has become more similar to Barack Obama’s. Although Cameron is not the Head of State, the powers he has been delegated from the monarch make him appear this way. Also, the fact that the media concentrates so intensely on the individual, as it has during Obama’s visit this week, heightens his accountability to the people as a leader and his sense of individual ministerial responsibility. Not only does this make the system more presidential, but it also implies that the Prime Minister has a form of personal mandate which a President would have. Furthermore the domination of foreign and military projects portrays him in a presidential fashion.
It is true that Blair and Thatcher were particularly dominant characters who accentuated the presidential factors within Britain’s system. However, the fact that they were able to do this implies that the role has become more Presidential, and that Cameron or other future Prime Ministers can mould the role to suit how they want it, making them more presidential. Clearly, as a President has now invaded Westminster, their roles have become even more blurred than ever before.