Bona fide or Bonaparte?

November 26, 1999

Are Tony Blair's efforts to remodel the PM's role politically sound, or is he, as some have suggested, falling victim to Bonapartism? Dennis Kavanagh reports.

Left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn tabled a House of Commons motion a couple of weeks ago complaining about the rise of a British presidency and, with it, unelected advisers and aides in No 10. Many of these, he argued, have greater access to, and potential influence on, Tony Blair than some cabinet ministers. Like Margaret Thatcher, Blair is finding that a strong prime minister is unfavourably compared with a president, or, in his case, to a Bonaparte who relies increasingly on cronies.

Ever since Walter Bagehot's English Constitution of 1865, comparisons have been drawn between the United States presidential and British cabinet systems. In fact, the analogy is not that useful because of significant constitutional and political differences between the two countries. A prime minister may wish for the direct popular mandate that a president has, while Bill Clinton can only envy Blair's huge parliamentary majority. But Blair's efforts to reshape the British premiership have certainly been radical.

We often classify prime ministers as "strong" and "weak". Strong leaders usually fall spectacularly. When the Conservative party withdrew from David Lloyd-George's coalition in 1922 he immediately resigned and was never a serious force again. Thatcher was humiliated when nearly 40 per cent of her MPs refused to vote for her in the leadership election in 1990. In each case it was the failure to gain the support of MPs, rather than that of the electorate, that proved decisive. The election defeats of "lesser" prime ministers such as Callaghan, Heath and Major, or the retirements of Wilson and Eden, were less traumatic. The British system, with the high place it has accorded to cabinet and the party in Parliament, has not been kind to strong prime ministers. Yet it is the latter who leave their mark on history.

Often, a prime minister is seen as dominant because the cabinet is weak and vice versa. When Thatcher fell and was replaced by the more collegial Major, the cabinet was temporarily restored as a body of influence. But after the exit from the exchange rate mechanism in September 1992, Major's fear of divisions and "leaks" made him reluctant to trust cabinet. Under Blair it has remained marginal.

Some argue that power is shared between the prime minister and ministers. A minister pushing a policy requires a prime minister's support, not least in cabinet and in battles with the Treasury. Deals between a prime minister and a cabinet minister are difficult for other ministers to overturn. But a prime minister also has to beware of pushing a minister so far that he or she resigns (Geoffrey Howe's resignation proved fatal for Thatcher), and also has to recognise the resources that reside in departments.

This leads to claims that departments rule. After all, they have the budgets, staff, expertise, policy networks - and the secretary of state has statutory powers. No 10 can look threadbare in comparison.

But how do departments change direction, particularly when a British minister's tenure in a department lasts, on average, less than two years? How does one tackle the problems that fall between departments and require the contributions of several agencies and employment of people with different skills? And what about the overall objectives of the government? Ministers who want to make a mark or who have gone native in the departments can easily lose sight of their role in contributing to the wider government programme. It is to Blair's credit that he has strengthened the Cabinet Office and created new bodies such as the policy and innovation unit, to combat the defects of departmentalism and to create a greater sense of corporatism across Whitehall.

Inevitably, some ministers and officials are resentful, particularly because Blair's record on collegiality is poor. Cabinet meetings help ministers to learn what is going on, underpin the sense of collective responsibility and act as a bonding session. But Blair's cabinets rarely last more than an hour and are too short to be useful for either decisions or discussions. Discussion is still organised under the traditional headings of Parliamentary, home, European and foreign affairs. Blair has added current events, in which a so-called "enforcer" - previously Jack Cunningham and now Mo Mowlam - reports on announcements and events for the following week. As a rule, matters only go to cabinet once they have been in committee. Compare this with 50 years ago when Attlee's cabinet met twice a week for two hours or more and would usually have five or six papers before it.

Cabinet leaking has also increased. Occasionally, under Major, a bemused cabinet secretary, Sir Robin Butler, would turn to the afternoon edition of the Evening Standard to read an account of what had happened at that morning's meeting. Prime ministers such as Thatcher and Blair prefer to work by holding bilateral meetings with key ministers and their officials.

Other trends are pulling the prime minister away from, or even elevating him above his senior colleagues. The growth of summits, including the G7, European Union sessions and Blair-Clinton seminars, makes inroads on a prime minister's time. Although Britain has lost an empire and has less input on the international stage, the prime minister is busier than ever internationally.

While this plays well in the media, it means the PM spends less time in the House of Commons. Research by Patrick Dunleavy and colleagues at the London School of Economics shows a steady decline in Commons statements and debates by prime ministers over the century. Tony Blair has voted in only 5 per cent of House of Commons divisions since May 1997 and the reduction of prime minister's questions to one weekly slot diminishes the opportunities for MPs to have a word with him or for him to "sense" the atmosphere in the Commons. This is part of a bigger picture, as MPs and ministers regard a slot on the Today programme as more important than a speech in the House of Commons.

Blair, more than any recent prime minister, has been communicator-in-chief for the government; as in the US, British political leaders not only try to manage the media but to bypass it by going "direct" to the voters. Under Blair there has been an elevation of people with media skills. Compared with Major, he has almost tripled the number of people with media skills in his office. The press office and policy unit have been strengthened and the strategic communications unit plans the work of government announcements, including press conferences, policy launches, speeches and green papers. This is the most media-conscious government ever.

The role of Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary and perhaps the closest person to him at No 10, is key. But there are others. The appointment as chief-of-staff of Jonathan Powell, a former diplomat who ran Blair's office in opposition and negotiated with senior officials over Labour's transition to government, alarmed Whitehall. The private office has been the preserve of the civil service since the 1920s but Powell has taken over some of the "fixing" role of principal private secretary and, as a political appointee, can dirty his hands with explicit party and press matters.

The youthful David Miliband, head of the policy unit, ensures that departments are aware - via his 12 policy-unit colleagues - of Blair's views. "Tony wants" is the most powerful phrase in Whitehall, according to one cabinet minister.

Another key figure, although an outsider, is political strategist Philip Gould. His analysis of opinion polls and the focus groups he personally conducts make him Blair's "hot-line to the public", according to one adviser. He has weekly meetings with Blair and writes him regular memos on how the PM should position himself on issues. All this is normal in the White House. It is an innovation in British politics. All these, and most other aides, worked for Blair in opposition. Hence the charge of cronyism.

Blair, for all his interest in devolution, has been a centraliser in party management and in running the machinery of government. Historically, a prime minister has lacked resources at No 10, having only a handful of aides. Whitehall took the view that power lies and should lie with the departments. But over the past 50 years, the prime minister's office has gradually expanded and become compartmentalised. An appointments office was set up in 1947, the political office in 1964, the policy unit in 1974, and Blair has added new units since 1997. There has been something akin to a US presidency in the scale on which he has imported his own staff into No 10, doubling the numbers working directly for him on party and policy matters compared with Major.

The new centralism - Bonapartism to some - has its critics in both Parliament and academia. But Blair appears happy with the "command" model: it is, after all, how he runs the party. Only the examples of the end of Lloyd-George in 1922 and Thatcher in 1990 may prompt some self-doubt.

Dennis Kavanagh is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. He is co-author of The Powers behind the Prime Minister: The Hidden Influence of No 10, published last week by HarperCollins.

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