Prime Minister

We’ve all heard of them; Boris Johnson, Theresa May, even Winston Churchill. But what do they do? What exactly is the role of a Prime Minister? This article will help develop an understanding of what a Prime Minister is, what their functions are, how they are elected, and how they are different from a President.

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Table of contents

    Meaning of Prime Minister

    Being a Prime Minister means you are the Head of Government. They are the head of the executive branch of the government and therefore chair the Cabinet. They are usually responsible for political planning and policy-making within the country. The Prime Minister usually has more power and influence in government than any other individual.

    Prime Minister 10 Downing Street, London residence of the UK Prime Minister StudySmarterFig. 1 10 Downing Street, London residence of the UK Prime Minister

    The Prime Minister usually represents the largest party in the House of Commons. Not only are Prime Ministers responsible for political planning and decisions they are also responsible for making sure everyone within government is acting according to the standards established by those in authority.

    The Cabinet is a team of ministers who represent different political departments and sit alongside the Prime Minister to help advise his leadership of the country.

    Election of the Prime Minister in the UK

    The Prime Minister of the UK is not directly elected, rather they must meet three criteria:

    • Firstly, they must be a member of parliament, usually the House of Commons.

    • Secondly, they must be the leader of a political party. If the leader is ousted by their party, they must also step down as Prime Minister.

    • Thirdly, the political party that they lead usually has a majority in the House of Commons. Though a minority or coalition can form, this is not the norm in the UK.

    After a general election which results in a majority government, the leader of that party will then formally be asked by the King to form a government and then officially appointed to the position of Prime Minister. Though this power of appointment still remains with the King, by constitutional convention she is not to be brought into party politics.

    Once appointed there is no limit to how long they can remain in power in the role of prime minister. The general elections occur every five years, but so long as the current Prime Minister’s party is elected and they maintain favour in their party then they are able to hold the position of Prime Minister.

    Current UK Prime Minister

    The current UK Prime Minister is Rishi Sunak, who represents the Conservative Party. Truss replaced Liz Truss as Prime Minister on 25 October 2022. He is the first British-Asian Prime Minister and the first Prime Minister of Hindu Faith.

    Before he was Prime Minister Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2020 to 2022 under Boris Johnson and resigned in May of 2022 in response to sexual harassment allegations against MP Chris Pincer. He later stood for the party leadership after Boris Johnson's resignation in July of 2022 but lost out to Liz Truss. He stood against when Truss resigned in October of 2022 and won the leadership.

    Prime Minister Photo of Rishi Sunak StudySmarterFig. 2: Rishi Sunak

    Functions of the Prime Minister

    As Head of Government, the Prime Minister in the UK has some critical functions. Some of the more important of these functions include setting the agenda, chairing the Cabinet and managing the executive, national leadership, international relations, appointment of ministers and representation of their party.

    Setting the agenda

    The next, and arguably the most important, role that the prime minister holds is setting the agenda for the government. They decide which new legislation must be focused on, which is most important and decide on the urgency of each area of new and proposed law. Through this, they also decide which policies will be promoted over others so that the government holds a united aim towards particular legislation and duties.

    Chairing the Cabinet and managing the executive

    As the leader, the Prime Minister has the responsibility of chairing the meetings. They effectively run the meetings, making sure all matters are addressed, proper consideration is given to all opinions and decisions are reached effectively and fairly between the members. Alongside this, the Prime Minister manages the executive by making sure policies are maintained and implemented across the government.

    The Prime Minister is also responsible for all the departments, making sure they are fairly looked after, supported, and represented. As well as making sure that these departments are carrying out their duties effectively within the government as a whole.

    Executive: The executive refers to the branch of government that is responsible for implementing legislation, this includes the government and the civil service.

    National leadership

    This means that the government (as a whole), and the population of the UK look to the Prime Minister for leadership and guidance. Having to lead on a national level is no easy task, which is why the Prime Minister has the Cabinet and other members of government supporting them during their term.

    International relations

    The prime minister is not only in charge of national relations and law but must represent the country in matters of international law and relations. Through this they must give leadership on all matters that concern the UK and their relationships with other jurisdictions around the world. Prime ministers have rarely left all international matters to the foreign secretary and are usually the primary leader in all matters of international matters.

    Appointment of Ministers

    Part of the Prime Minister's role is to appoint ministers, deciding who will be appointed to Cabinet to work closely with the Prime Minister on the country's most important matters. They must make sure that every department within the UK government has a representative.

    Representation of their Party

    As they are members of their political party to receive the highest votes and authority they are left to manage and represent their political party. This involves the responsibilities of making sure everyone’s conduct is up to scratch, setting out party policies and manifestos, and making sure the party members are all in agreement in the hierarchy of importance when it comes to that party’s aims.

    Difference between a Prime Minister and a President

    There is often confusion about who is a Prime Minister and who is a President and whether there is a difference between the two roles. There is definitely a difference, what that difference is can depend on what system the country has. The main differences are between their role, the way they are elected, and their policy-making power.

    The main difference is that a Prime Minister is the Head of Government and a President is the head of state, and in a presidential system they are both head of State and Head of Government. So in a presidential system, the President will take on all the roles of a Prime Minister, as well as the roles of a Head of State. This can vary depending on the country, but often this is a largely ceremonial role, especially in a parliamentary system. Whereas, in a presidential and semi-presidential system, these roles are much greater, and often include either some or all of the roles of a Head of Government.

    Usually, a President in a presidential system is directly elected. Whereas a Prime Minister, especially in a parliamentary system, is usually elected through a party vote in a general election. This means voters don't vote for a person, as they would in a presidential election, but for a party whose leader will become Prime Minister. Though, how this functions can vary between parliamentary systems.

    In the United States, one of the most famous examples of a presidential system, the President is directly elected through the presidential election every five years,

    A President usually isn't, and in many cases can't be, a member of the legislative branch, but a Prime Minister usually is. This means that Prime Ministers tend to have a lot more policymaking power that Presidents do. This also changes depending on the system, as in a semi-presidential system, there is a huge variation between which functions and powers go to the President and which to the Prime Minister.

    In France, the Prime Minister has policy-making power over domestic policy and economic policy, while the President has policy-making power over foreign policy and defence policy.

    Prime Minister - Key takeaways

    • A Prime Minister is the leader of the government.
    • They usually gain office by being the leader of the political party that wins the most seats in parliament in a general election.
    • The current UK Prime Minister is Liz Truss.
    • The functions of a prime minister include; setting the agenda, chairing the Cabinet and managing the executive, national leadership, international relations, appointment of ministers and representation of their party.
    • A Prime Minister and President are different roles which can vary depending on the governmental system in place.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 10 Downing Street, London residence of the UK Prime Minister (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:10_Downing_Street._MOD_45155532.jpg) by Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC (https://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/) licenced by OGL v1.0 (https://nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/) on Wikimedia Commons.
    2. Fig. 2 Rishi Sunak (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chancellor_Rishi_Sunak_(cropped).jpg) by Simon Walker (https://www.flickr.com/photos/hmtreasury/) licensed by OGL v3.0 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Government_Licence) on Wikimedia Commons.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Prime Minister

    What is the power of the Prime Minister in the UK?

    They lead the government alongside their Cabinet. 

    Who is the Prime Minister of the UK?

    The current prime minister of the UK is Liz Truss. 

    What is the difference between a President and a Prime Minister?

    A President is the Head of State, and often also the Head of Government, whereas a Prime Minister is only the Head of Government.

    Who chooses the Prime Minister?

    The monarch officially appoints the Prime Minister but they are usually the leader of the political party that holds the most seats in parliament.

    What is the difference between the Prime Minister and the Queen?

    In the UK, the Prime Minister is the Head of Government whereas the Queen is the Head of State. The Queen's role is largely ceremonial.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What political party is current Prime Minister Boris Johnson a part of?

    What are the roles of the prime minister?

    Is the prime minister responsible for deciding the importance of political agendas?

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