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The end of the Blair presidency?

Pete Smith on Tony Blair.

A debate has raged in British politics and political science about the exact role and powers of the Prime Minister.

The classic statements are derived from Walter Bagehot’s work The English Constitution (1867) and many of the well-worn phrases, for example, that the Prime Minister is ‘first amongst equals’ or that he or she is the ‘keystone of the Cabinet arch’ are derived from that book. Now even in 1867 this was not an accurate set of descriptions. Much earlier the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have told friends after his first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister that he did not understand it: “I gave them orders and they wanted to stay to discuss them”.

The theme of Bagehot’s argument was that Britain had a system of Cabinet government where senior ministers shared responsibility for decision making and the policies that flowed from those decisions. The Prime Minister was the chairman of the board, not an executive president.

The contrast with the United States of America could not have been clearer, although Bagehot himself did not see it because writing later in the 1870s he thought that the American system was evolving in the British direction. Although the President does have a Cabinet he does not share responsibility for decision making with it. Who he takes advice from is up to him. He often takes advice from people who formally are not Cabinet members. At present Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser, has more influence on Bush than any Cabinet members. As any estate agent will tell you location is everything: based in the White House she is closer to the President’s ear than Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on the other side of town.

When Bagehot’s book was republished in the 1960s, Tony Crosland, academic and future Labour Cabinet minister, wrote the preface that substantially repudiated the Bagehot view. As far as Crosland was concerned Cabinet government had largely been replaced by prime ministerial government.

The factors behind this were fairly straightforward. The rise of highly centralised, mass-based political parties had concentrated power in the hands of party leaders, and when a party is in power that concentrates power in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Two world wars had greatly expanded government and centralised power in the Cabinet office of which the Prime Minister is political boss. Obviously Bagehot could not have imagined the growth of the mass media and the ability it gives to a prime minister to communicate directly with voters over the heads of ministers or party.

When Bagehot was writing, politics was essentially a hobby for rich people. A morning in the club or the city and then, in the afternoon, a toddle along to the House of Commons to do a spot of legislating. The twentieth century, which saw the rise of democracy and mass-based political parties also gave us the emergence of the professional politician, people who do it for a living. In fact in recent times, particularly on the Labour benches we have seen the development of a caste who have never had any job other than politics. They move from student politics to working as advisor to a minister or working for a trade union or think tank and later pitch up as a member of parliament. Such people have invested their whole lives in a political career. Are they going to throw that away by becoming a member of the awkward squad?

Party discipline and loyalty concentrate some power in the hands of the Prime Minister and ministerial salaries, status and perquisites do the rest. Ministers who form the so-called ‘payroll’ vote are, in effect, the servants of the Prime Minister and on the backbenches sit the wannabe ministers who know that disobeying the whips is not a very certain career path.

Some recent writers, such as Michael Foley, have described the rise of the British presidency. Mainly drawing on the experience of the Thatcher years, Nick Cohen has memorably labelled Tony Blair as the ‘man who would be king’ and has pointed out that Cabinet scarcely meets in any realistic way, half an hour or less on a Thursday morning, when most of the real decisions are cut and dried before the meeting starts.

The most important people in the government, after Blair, are not ministers or MPs but appointed officials. Alistair Campbell is the real Deputy Prime Minister, just as Andrew Adonis is the real Education Secretary. These people are the creatures of the Prime Minister and him alone. Location is everything.

So in what sense is Blair a president? Well, of course, he operates in a very different system from the American one. American presidents are elected separately from Congress and have their own mandate, though because of the fun and games in Florida in November 2000, in George W Bush’s case a pretty dubious one. Clinton had to live with a Republican controlled Congress for six of his eight years in office, a mirror of the situation that Ronald Reagan faced during his presidency.

Even if a president’s party does hold Congress as at the moment, he cannot control it. Party discipline is weak and opportunities to buy support with patronage much more limited than in the House of Commons. Bush is titular head of his party because he is President; Blair, in contrast, is Prime Minister because he is head of his party and for no other reason. Until recently Blair was able to exercise a grip of iron over the House.

In fact we have experienced two extended periods of prime ministerial power sandwiching a period of more or less genuine cabinet government. When Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 she did not have complete command of her government. It contained people such as Ian Gilmour and Francis Pym who were far removed from her in terms of values and attitudes.

Gradually she was able to craft a government in her own image, particularly after the landslide victory of the 1983 election. Ahead in the polls and adored by the party faithful, her grip on her party and her government looked unassailable. However, things were more complicated. When the government hit problems, disagreements over Europe and the poll tax, in particular, things changed. Once the party started to slide in the polls, lose by-elections and do badly in local and European elections, her grasp began to weaken. The Prime Minister who in 1987 promised to go on and on found herself leaving Downing Street in tears in November 1990 only weeks after the party conference was orchestrated as a show of support.

By the time she left office no members of the Cabinet had served in any ones Cabinet apart from hers. The Tory backbenches were packed with former ministers, has-beens, or frustrated never wases. In the leadership election which followed the Thatcher resignation, all three candidates promised to restore cabinet government, which implied that they all thought that it had not existed during some or all of the Thatcher years.

Major did not seem to want to impose a presidential style but even if he had he would not have been able to. From 1990 to 1992 he did not have his own mandate. April 1992 brought only a narrow majority in the House of Commons. A divided government and party, torn apart by the European issue pretty much completed the picture. From September 1992 Major and his party were low in the polls and losing elections. The Major years now look like the filling in the sandwich of prime ministerial power.

When Blair became Labour Party leader, the party had been out of power for fifteen years and had not won an election for almost twenty years. The party was desperate to win and to idolise any leader who could bring victory.

This is why Blair seemed so powerful in the first term. A huge majority and a substantial poll lead made Blair’s domination certain as did a largely friendly media. Divisions within the party on such issues as Europe, public services and trade union rights were muted. The Tories were flatlining in the polls and looked less credible as an alternative government than Labour did in the wilderness of the 1980s. The scene was set for the Blair presidency.

Now we can reassess the situation. Re-elected with another large majority in 2001, it might have been assumed that it would be business as usual in the second term but it has not turned out that way. Some of this has been because of the crisis over Iraq. The party just did not like Blair’s policy or the way his ministerial stooges slavishly followed him. Almost two million people on the streets of London, most of them actually or potentially Labour voters, a chunk of them party members. The same factors that led to Thatcher’s downfall are beginning to build up. Discontented former ministers who have got resentments to express and scores to settle. When Robin Cook finished his resignation speech he sat down between Frank Dobson and Chris Smith.

With such a large majority in the House of Commons even the stupidest backbenchers must be starting to suspect that their prospects of preferment are close to zero. If it has not happened in six years it is not going to happen. The rebellion over Iraq was the largest since the emergence of the modern party system. It may be followed by a similar revolt over foundation hospitals. Refusing to do as you are told is both catching and habit forming.

Some Labour MPs will face the prospect of deselection because of their support for the government. They certainly face what we might call an activist strike in terms of members being prepared to do the leg work in the next election campaign. The fire fighters dispute has been emblematic of the likely continuing problems with the trade unions. Blair cannot rely on the passivity of the wider labour movement as he could in his first term.

None of this is to say that Blair’s days are numbered but it does mean that the Blair presidency is drawing to a close. Certainly, for him, it will never be glad confident morning again.