3rd April 2021
Happy birthday, office of the prime minister.
300 years ago today Robert Walpole became what is now generally recognised as the first Prime Minister: https://t.co/UzI9TsQvRl— Mr Memory (@AmIRightSir) April 3, 2021
The office of the prime minister was not invented in one sudden moment.
The term ‘prime minister’ came to be used generally over time to describe the main minster of the crown, and who was answerable to parliament.
For a long time, the office of prime minister was invisible to our constitutional law.
The first time it was used in a formal instrument was, we are told, when Benjamin Disraeli signed the treaty of Berlin in 1878.
Even in the twentieth century it hardly left a trace on the statute book.
And this gives us an insight in to the strengths and weaknesses of the position.
In constitutional theory, the power of a prime minister derives – ahem, primarily – from two sources.
First, the prime minister has powers derived from the royal prerogative – the fiction being that the prime minister exercises those powers on behalf of the crown.
Second, the prime minister has powers derived from commanding a majority in the house of commons – and thereby control over finance legislation.
The prime minister’s power rests thereby on two constitutional stools.
What the prime minister does not have – at least not formally – is his or her own explicit constitutional centre of gravity.
Almost everything a prime minister can and cannot do ultimately comes from, in theory, either the crown or parliament.
This, in turn, means that the office is difficult to ‘reform’ – for as there are almost no legal instruments that set out the powers of the prime minister, there is no text to amend or replace.
It would be like trying to net a constitutional ghost.
It also means that the office can be as powerful and as weak as personalties and circumstances allow – you would not be able to tell just from constitutional law alone why certain prime ministers are strong or otherwise, and how certain prime ministers lose power.
For explanations for why, for example, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both left office despite winning three general elections each you will have to look at books about politics and not about constitutional law.
And so what we are celebrating is not so much three hundred years of an office but a lack of a defined office, but one at the centre of practical political power.
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