It is a criticism often levelled at over-mighty Prime Ministers that they secretly wish they could be President. It is a claim often made of Tony Blair, and I recall Margaret Thatcher being similarly accused. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The reason for this misconception lies in the apparently vast powers of American presidents. French presidencies can also appear to omnipotent, as governments are appointed from The Élysée Palace without their members needing to be members of the National Assembly. One assumes that the constitutional presidencies of Germany, Italy and Israel are not the model of which critics are thinking when they accuse British prime ministers of dreaming of a presidency.
In fact, while American presidents appear mighty from across the Atlantic, they have far less power within their realms than a British prime minister. The power and position of a British prime minister lies in the fact that he has (barring the occasional bout of back-bench uppitiness) a majority in the legislature. Thus, executive and legislature are intrinsically wed in a manner that would be alien in the United States.
As last month’s congressional elections should bring home to us, presidents risk seeing their power checked by rival legislatures. Indeed, despite George Bush’s good fortune in having a “friendly” congress for most of his administration, even the republican-controlled House and Senate occasionally blocked his plans, notably over social service reform and immigration.
By comparison, a British Prime Minister is free to do almost anything he wishes. His parliamentary majority and the weakness of the second chamber enable him to pass almost any legislation. Budgets are not picked over and amended, but nodded through by compliant MPs. Vast areas of Government do not even require parliament, as they are still subject to the Royal Prerogative. And the Prime Minister is never personally subject to a serious vote: rather than having to face the electorate, one-on-millions, the Prime Minister has the comfort of a pocket borough to ensure that he, at least, will always be returned. He can stuff the upper house with his placement, pick his Cabinet and appoint judges, ambassadors and senior officials without their ever being questioned by an appointments committee. Offences to liberty such as the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill would never be possible were Britain to have a written constitution, which a British presidency would necessitate.
No, you may rest assured that Tony Blair is quite happy being a humble Prime Minister. Let others have the titular supremacy, along with the administrative headaches of constitutional government and the checks and balances on their power. Let them face re-election in their own right. For British Prime Ministers, it’s far preferable to be a mere servant of the Crown.