debate has raged in British politics and
political science about the exact role and powers of the
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
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been replaced by prime ministerial government.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,
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
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
So in what sense is Blair a president? Well, of course,
he operates in a very different system from the American
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
Even if a president’s party does hold Congress as
at the moment, he cannot control it. Party discipline is
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
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
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
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