The Roles & Powers of the Prime Minister & the Cabinet

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  • 0:04 The Prime Minister
  • 2:11 The Prime Minister's Duties
  • 3:22 The Cabinet
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the roles and duties of the British prime minister and Cabinet. We will pay close attention to how the prime minister and Cabinet members obtain their positions.

The Prime Minister

The student sits at her desk, fiddling with her pencil. It's exam day, and this course on British government has been challenging to say the least. Today's exam focuses on the prime minister and the Cabinet, and the student hopes that she has studied enough. When the professor hands out the exam, the student skims through it quickly, her confidence rising. It doesn't look so bad after all!

The first question is a breeze: 'Define the term prime minister.' The student writes quickly - 'The prime minster is the head of the British government. He or she is an active member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that holds the most seats there.'

The next question is easy, too: 'How does someone become prime minister?' Again, the student jots her answer: 'After an election, the monarch calls on the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons to form the new government. The leader, thereby, becomes the prime minister. Although he or she is elected to the House of Commons by a popular vote, he or she is appointed to the office of prime minister by the monarch.'

The third question is a bit more challenging: 'Who was the first prime minister?' The student pauses a moment, scratches her head, and remembers, and then writes that the first prime minister was Sir Robert Walpole, who served in that role from 1720 to 1742. He wasn't actually called a prime minister because that title wasn't recognized until 1905, but he did the job.

The fourth question isn't so bad, although there is a bit of a trick to it: 'Which prime minister was appointed after the general election of 2010?' The student replies that Queen Elizabeth appointed David Cameron as the prime minister after the 2010 election. Cameron, who is the head of the powerful Conservative Party, works in conjunction with his Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who is the head of the Liberal Democrats. Because the election did not result in either party holding the majority of seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had to form a coalition government and work together.

The Prime Minister's Duties

The student flips her exam to the next page, which is mostly blank except for one line at the top, which reads, 'List some of the duties of the prime minister.' 'The prime minister, the student reflects, is a very busy person.' She immediately begins making her list:

  1. The prime minister is responsible for all the decisions and policies of the British government.
  2. He or she appoints government officials, such as members of the Cabinet.
  3. He or she serves as the head of the Cabinet and sits on several Cabinet committees.
  4. He or she manages, oversees, and organizes the work of government departments and agencies.
  5. He or she serves as a liaison between the monarch and the government, keeping the monarch up-to-date on government business. He or she also recommends candidates for the monarch to appoint to the House of Lords, the judicial bench, and the clergy of the Church of England.
  6. He or she is active in the House of Commons, often participating in debates, answering questions from fellow MPs, and making formal statements.
  7. He or she is the leader of his or her political party and works to keep the other members in line.
  8. He or she represents the United Kingdom internationally.

The Cabinet

Having completed her list, the student turns to the next page of the exam to see five questions about the British Cabinet. She glances through them and sets to work. The first question asks for a simple definition: 'What is the Cabinet?' The student responds that the Cabinet is a committee that helps the prime minister analyze issues, make decisions, and set governmental policy.

The next question isn't too hard either: 'Who appoints Cabinet members?' 'The prime minister gets to appoint the members of his or her Cabinet,' the student quickly writes. 'The prime minister is the first among equals in the Cabinet, which means that he or she has control over appointments and dismissals, but otherwise works in conjunction with the rest of the Cabinet.'

The third question gives the student a slight pause as she tries to remember some details: 'Describe the configuration of the Cabinet.' 'The Cabinet is made up of 22 ministers, including the prime minister and his deputy,' the student begins. 'These ministers are all members of Parliament. In addition, most of them serve as the heads of government departments and carry the title of Secretary of State for those departments.'

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