The job of prime minister, Asquith once said, is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it. Indeed, the prime minister's role as head of the government and as chair of the Cabinet has never been defined in statute. The term prime minister was not even mentioned in any statute of importance until the Ministers of the Crown Act of 1937.
In this provocative "open letter to the current and future prime ministers", Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, argues that the lack of statutory definition prevents Parliament and people from holding the prime minister accountable. Thus the power of the prime minister has been able to grow without hindrance until it is "in effect an unelected, unacknowledged Presidency, and because it is unacknowledged it has none of the checks and balances that normally go with a Presidency".
The thesis that the Cabinet is merely a "dignified" part of the constitution has become distinctly fashionable. But those who believe that we have prime ministerial or presidential government tend to deplore it.
Allen, however, regards it as inevitable and seeks to constitutionalise it.
He offers the following brief summary of his argument for those "with a limited attention span": "The UK has, in effect, a Presidency. We should recognise it. We should welcome it. We should democratically control it."
In November 2001, Allen introduced into the Commons, under the ten-minute rule, a "Prime Minister (Office, Role and Functions) Bill", seeking to put the powers of the premiership on a statutory basis. But he wants to do more than codify the position. If the prime minister is already, as Allen believes, a president, then constitutional logic seems to require that he be directly elected. There would then be a separation of powers between prime minister/president and Parliament. Local government, after all, is based on a similar idea. In London, the directly elected mayor is complemented by a separately elected strategic authority, while, under the Local Government Act of 2000, every other local authority is required to establish a separate executive, either a directly elected mayor or a "cabinet".
Those who accept Allen's premise that we have already moved into an era of presidential government will not find it too difficult to accept his conclusions. Critics, however, will accuse him of ahistorically elevating current vicissitudes into grand trends. The accusation that the prime minister has become a "president" or even a "dictator" has been directed at every strong prime minister since Sir Robert Peel. Tony Blair is, no doubt, a strong prime minister, but he has not yet managed to emulate Gladstone who, in 1886, took upon himself the drafting of a Home Rule Bill, which he presented to his Cabinet as a fait accompli, or Harold Macmillan who, in 1962, peremptorily sacked nearly half of his Cabinet. Moreover, strong as he is, Blair finds himself prevented from joining the euro by Gordon Brown.
It is a strange sort of president who is unable to control his own chancellor.
If Blair is a strong prime minister, this is largely because we, the voters, have made him so. Blair has won two landslide elections in 1997 and 2001 on manifestoes largely of his own devising. Large Commons majorities mean that backbench rebellion is futile. John Major, by contrast, won the 1992 election with a majority of just 21, and this was eroded through byelection losses and defections, so that by 1997, Major was the leader of a minority government. Far from being a strong prime minister, Major became a prisoner-leader, at the mercy of a divided Cabinet and of the Eurosceptic mavericks on his backbenches.
Blair's landslide majorities, however, were secured, under our peculiar electoral system, on just 42 per cent of the vote. Indeed, four of the past five elections - those of 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 - have yielded landslides, although, in each case, nearly three-fifths of the voters cast their votes against the winning party. A natural response, therefore, to the condition diagnosed by Allen, seems to be electoral reform, for proportional representation would generally lead to coalition government, which would constrain the prime minister's power.
Allen, however, does not seem to support electoral reform, primarily, one suspects, because he believes that it would militate against strong government. He agrees with Blair who, in 2002, told the liaison committee of the House of Commons: "I make no apology for having a strong centre," since only the prime minister can focus the government on the delivery of better public services. Direct election of the prime minister may thus be seen as a surrogate for proportional representation, although there is perhaps less chance of its being adopted. The trouble is, however, that a genuine separation of powers is even more likely to lead to weak government than electoral reform, especially when the premiership and the House of Commons are under the control of different parties. "The most interesting thing about the government of the United States," Woodrow Wilson declared in the presidential campaign of 1912, "is that under its constitutional balances it postpones everything. You have an arrested government. You have a government that is not responding to the wishes of the people."
Even if Allen's diagnosis and his proposed cure fail to convince, The Last Prime Minister deserves to be read. It is iconoclastic, stimulating and well-argued, and its publication could hardly be more timely, coinciding as it does with the Hutton inquiry and the continuing debate on the legitimacy of the war in Iraq.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.
The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest About the UK Presidency
Author - Graham Allen
ISBN - 0 907845 41 X
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Price - £8.95
Pages - 89