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Has the Prime Minister become more powerful in recent years?

Mike McCartney

11th April 2022

What insight into the power of the PM do recent developments provide?

As I have written many times, one of the best ways to elevate an answer when looking at the question of whether the PM has become more powerful in recent years is to employ Foley’s thesis.

A reminder:

Professor Michael Foley over twenty years ago developed his thesis of the British presidency. This was predicated on the idea that UK leaders co-opted the tactics used by US presidents to overcome the constitutional limits on their powers. Techniques include: portraying themselves as outsiders, by focusing on their political history outside of Washington DC (mostly as governors), i.e. 'outside the beltway'; distancing themselves from government and criticising the behaviour that goes on in Washington; exploiting media in its myriad guises, such as Reagan's use of televised addresses to appeal over the heads of Congress, and direct appeal in terms of national leadership in terms of crisis - think here of Bush Junior trying to get people to rally round the flag in the aftermath of 9/11.

Blair provides a good example.

  • Outsider: New Labour/Clause IV
  • Separate from politics: “Little interest in parliament”
  • Media: Permanent campaign/elevation of spin doctors
  • Direct appeal/crisis management: Death of Diana

And what about Johnson?

  • Outsider: built his popular appeal via television and then exploited the platform of having been Mayor of London
  • Separate from politics: suspending Parliament re Brexit; trying to rip up the rule book during the Patterson investigation
  • Media: here's a good one from Heather Stewart in the Guardian this week. Johnson’s image has always been carefully controlled. "He employs a taxpayer-funded photographer on a salary of more than £100,000 a year, and his aides have long favoured scripted broadcast clips as a way of putting his message across directly to the public." Source: Johnson still seeking to control image in eye of partygate storm
  • Direct appeal/crisis management: "Get Brexit done" at the 2019 election.

And there has been more media attention given to Johnson in recent days with lots of front page coverage of the PM alongside the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in central Kyiv. On the one hand there is no reason to doubt that this was a genuine signal of support, a “show of solidarity”, on Johnson’s behalf for Zelenskyy, but media coverage was undoubtedly carefully orchestrated by Number 10, accompanies as it was, be the almost statutory press conference.

On a related note, we can also refer to the quasi-Head of State thesis. This can be traced back to Peter Oborne’s criticism of the Blair government’s attempt to portray the PM, not the Queen, as head of state. Oborne pointed to at least three events to support of his premise: the unprecedented decision by Blair to walk from Downing Street to Parliament for the occasion of its State Opening, thus deliberately upstaging the moment of the Queen’s arrival; an interview given by Jack Straw, where he twice referred to Blair as ‘head of state’; Blair himself described British troops as ‘my’ armed forces during a visit to Kosovo. The increasing foreign policy focus (Britain was involved in more wars than under any other leader during the Blair decade) has allowed Blair to adopt a presidential pose. Perhaps the ultimate sign of hubris in this regard was Blair’s plan to purchase a new jet similar to the American President’s Air Force One, which critics dubbed ‘Blair Force One’. The royal prerogative states that her Majesty, not the PM, is commander in chief of the armed forces. But as the Guardian reported: “No 10 said Britain would send 120 armoured vehicles and new anti-ship missile systems to Ukraine. The missiles can do serious damage to Russian warships and could be used to tackle the Russian navy siege of Black Sea ports. The UK pledged £100m in military assistance last week, including another 800 anti-tank missiles, more anti-aircraft weapons, “suicide drones”, which hover over the battlefield before attacking a target, and helmets, body armour and night-vision goggles.”

One wonders if Parliament should have been recalled and a statement should have been given to the House of Commons.

Another trend apparent inside Whitehall in terms of the PM/Cab debate has been the tendency for PMs to form an inner Cabinet.

Recent PMs have increasingly sought the advice of non- elected, special advisers. The practice was evident under Harold Wilson, but recent PMs have accelerated this trend by, for instance, consulting them on issues of major importance. Mrs Thatcher preferred taking input from her economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters, not her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, on ERM entry. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff, played a key role in the Good Friday negotiations.

Professor Peter Hennessy brought these ideas together in his theory of “circles of influence”. Some ministers have clearly been closer to various PM than others (and this isn’t necessarily to do with the size or profile of their brief). Hennessy wrote that power was located in concentric circles, with those exercising greater power in the circles closest to the PM. So for Blair circa 2000 we had the PM, Campbell, Powell, Andy Heywood (senior civil servant), Charlie Falconer (a department-less Minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, but a long-time friend of Blair), and David Miliband. In circle one and a half, was Brown, alone. In circle two, Mandelson. In circle three, Prescott and Richard Wilson (senior civil servant). In circle four, Jack Straw, Lord Irvine (Lord Chancellor, and Blair’s first employer), and Robin Cook. Hennessy placed the remainder of the Cabinet in circle five.

In a similar vein, this week it was reported in the ‘i’ newspaper: “Boris Johnson shrinks inner circle as No 10 and Treasury seek to crack down on leaks.”

According to the paper (08/04/22): “The Prime Minister has shrunk his inner circle since the “Partygate” scandal erupted earlier this year, as Whitehall bids to crack down on damaging leaks, i understands.

Boris Johnson now allows only his most senior aides to attend the daily morning meeting at 10 Downing Street on a regular basis.

Other more junior officials and advisers are said to be kept out of major decisions, partly in an attempt to stop plans being leaked to the media and opposition parties.

Apart from the Prime Minister, the only people regularly invited to the morning meeting are understood to be Steve Barclay, the chief of staff; Andrew Griffith, the policy director; Guto Harri, director of communications and Mr [Rishi] Sunak.”

With regards to the latter, the dynamics of the relationship between the neighbours at Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street in the context of the PM/Cab debate is perhaps the subject of another blog entry!?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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