Of prime ministers and presidents: Thatcher’s forgotten legacy

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By Tony Hudson

It all started with Maggie.

Before the Iron Lady, Britain's prime minister and the American president seemed to be operating in completely different political systems.

While the US president is often referred to as 'the most powerful man in the world', it may be more accurate to say the president is 'the most influential man in the world' as his actual power – within the US at least – is very limited by the strict institutional rules created by the US constitution.

In the UK, the prime minister was a man operating from a position of potential weakness: everything about his ability to govern depended on the size of his majority in the Commons.

Then came Thatcher. She was the first prime minister to really make the UK premiership 'presidential'. Tony Blair followed in her footsteps, going even further and blurring the boundaries between the two roles at the summit of the US-UK special relationship.

Dr James Boys, a senior visiting research fellow at King's College, London, says the media often likes to talk about the American system being "broken" when a president struggles to get legislation passed.

"What they fail to take into account is that the system is designed that way – it's an invitation to struggle. It is designed to frustrate presidents so that every piece of legislation is scrutinised within an inch of its life."

By the time Thatcher struck up her unusually close relationship with Ronald Reagan, it was clear this unusually forceful prime minister and her constrained colleague across the Atlantic had more in common than most of their predecessors.

In the early years of American independence, the separation of powers was a key part of the new constitution. They wanted to avoid setting up a system which would allow any one person to wield too much influence over the direction of the government.

Things are different in Britain. The prime minister may not be the head of state (that honour falls to the nice lady who lives in the big house by St James' Park) but does not have anywhere near that much difficulty pursuing a political agenda. His or her power is derived from the legislature, rather than being separate from it.

"If you want a strong leader you can get a one with parliamentary system with a huge majority," Boys adds.

"In a presidential system you don't have the potential for a runaway leadership because the president is checked by congress at every step. Tony Blair was elected with a huge majority and was able to get a lot of things done."

There is, however, a trade-off.

Despite having more power with regard to getting an agenda passed through the government, it is actually the prime minister whose grip on the levers of power can be easiest to wrest away.

"We fluctuate between greater power and greater accountability," explains Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a senior consultant on constitutional affairs at Policy Exchange.

"The prime minister has more power with a majority in parliament than a president without a majority of Congress but is in greater danger of dismissal than a US president if there is a loss of confidence."

Pinto-Duschinsky cites the recent examples of Thatcher and Blair as prime ministers who were hurried out of power by their own governing party - as summed up by Norman Tebbit in his tribute to the late Baroness, when he said he regretted leaving her "at the mercy of her friends".

What a difference from the man in the White House, who is very difficult to unseat. The proceedings against Richard 'I am not a crook' Nixon following the Watergate scandal were pre-empted by his resignation and the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton was unsuccessful.

Even when the president leaves office, there is a lengthy period of transition between executives. When a new president is elected in November, they receive the title president-elect until they take the oath of office in January. When there is deeply unpopular president and a wildly popular president-elect – as was the case in 2008 with George W Bush and president-elect Barack Obama, the handover of power takes months.

This is not the case with the premiership.

"Our first-past-the-post system allows for 'removal van government' that allows removal vans to take away the prime minister's belongings the day after a general election," Pinto-Duschinsky points out.

Despite this danger, term limits have historically been something more favourable to a prime minister's retention of power than a president.

When a president is elected, they know exactly how long they have until re-election. Every four years, without fail, the American electorate decides upon their commander-in-chief.

The prime minister, on the other hand, has until recently had the opportunity to call an election whenever it best suited their re-election chances.

If the president had that power, Boys argues, the world could be a very different place, citing the record poll numbers president George HW Bush had in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.

"If he'd have had a choice, he would have gone to the country right after the Gulf War, been re-elected in a walk and you'd never have heard of Bill or Hillary Clinton.

"As it was, he had to wait two years, domestic concerns took over and Bill Clinton was able to defeat him in the 1992 election on the strength of his economic message."

Even though prime ministers have this extraordinarily advantageous power, knowing when to use it is vital. Gordon Brown enjoyed a spell of great popularity following his succession to the premiership after Tony Blair's resignation but failed to capitalise on it by not going to the country.

If he had, Boys argues, he would have been elected to a five-year term and we'd most likely not have a coalition government today.

The method the two positions are filled is also very different, and can produce very different reactions in the voting public.

The US president's name is on every voting ballot across the country on election day, whereas the prime minister can only attain the top job if the rest of his party performs well enough to secure him a majority (or, as is currently the case, he is able to form a coalition).

"The president is a unifying figure because he's voted for by the entire country, whereas the prime minister is elected as a result of having a party majority," says Boys.

"A lot of people from outside the UK cannot understand how we can have prime ministers that a lot of people hate, but unless you live in Sedgefield, you didn't vote for Tony Blair."

The increasing dominance of political leaders in voters' minds as they make up their minds about which party to vote for started with Thatcher, and is becoming more and more pronounced at each general election.

Labour MP Graham Allen, who wrote The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest About the UK Presidency, believes this may actually be changing as politics and media have become so inextricably linked over the last few decades.

"Over time, MPs in parliament have ceded their political sovereignty to their leaderships. People are increasingly voting based on who they believe should be prime minister rather than who would make the best local MP," he says.

Allen also argues while that may be how it was originally intended, the role of the British prime minister has become increasingly akin to the presidency.

"The power of the prime minister has been rapidly increasing over the last century with no parliamentary constraints.

"However unintended, we have developed a system where the prime minister is, in effect, the UK president. To the electorate, the party leaders have become the party. David Cameron is the Conservative party and Ed Miliband is the Labour party."

There may be many differences between the rules restricting and empowering those sitting in Downing Street and the White House. But in an increasingly globalised and media-centric world, British party leaders are becoming increasingly similar to presidential candidates. It's just yet another way in which Thatcher shaped the Britain we're living in today. As well as transforming the country, she helped fundamentally rework the way Britain views her successors.

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