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PM power and Boris Johnson - essay preparation exercise

Mike McCartney

30th November 2021

Great article recently in the Guardian that I am planning to use with my for my Oxbridge Politics group. Also useful, I think, as essay prep

It is a well known refrain that PM power waxes and wanes. I came across this in the Guardian last week:

So, I have an idea for a fairly rudimentary starter for a discussion. Read the article, and comment on how it fits with the debate about PM power. For assistance, I include my sample essay on an age old question...

To what extent have prime ministers become more powerful in recent years?

Within the current government, Boris Johnson has clearly continued the trend of exploiting his office in order to focus the media on him as an individual, e.g. his “Get Brexit Done” 2019 election slogan, and the singular focus on Johnson did - as academic studies indicate - generate widespread media coverage on him, rather than the rest of the government. This certainly gives the impression of more individual dominance, rather than collegiality. But, this may be too simplistic a picture of Prime Minister-Cabinet relations.

Cabinet has certainly declined as a full forum for decision making, for example BoE independence was made by the Blair/Brown axis not full cabinet. David Cameron very much led meetings from the front, there was a slight revival of discussion under May, but then Johnson didn’t even attend the first five Cobra meetings on Covid. So, yes, it appears PMs are more powerful.

Brown as PM operated a “kitchen cabinet” including the likes of Ed Balls, but excluding the chancellor. Under Cameron, George Osborne and Oliver Letwin appear closer to the PM’s ear than most. Johnson throughout the early stages of his premiership operated a ‘quad’: an inner circle of ministers, comprising a gang of four of himself, Matt Hancock, Dominic Rabb and Michael Gove. Therefore PM power has increased in this sense.

Furthermore, recent PMs have increasingly sought the advice of special advisers. Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, became known as ‘the real deputy prime minister’. It goes without saying what level of trust Johnson placed in Dominic Cummings. Johnson’s new top adviser is Dan Rosenfield, and his level of influence is already significant. These tactics certainly afford the PM more power.

Another recent phenomenon is one whereby the electorate focus on the head of the government rather than the government as a collective - suggesting we have a de facto single executive. As mentioned in the introduction, the 2019 campaign focussed relentlessly on Johnson, and he exploited this to his full advantage – who can forget the queue on newly elected Conservative MPs waiting in the Commons for a selfie with Johnson after he had delivered a significant majority for his party? This suggests an increase in PM power.

The personal style of governance of recent PMs also extends to their habit of taking personal control over departmental affairs. Under Blair, obvious examples could be Northern Ireland or child poverty. Cameron forced his health secretary into a U-turn on scrapping NHS Direct while giving a live TV interview. And, of course, it was widely reported that an eleventh-hour intervention by Johnson got the Brexit talks over the line. All this supports the idea of an increase in PM power.

Perhaps most convincingly in support of the PM power increase thesis: there is Michael Foley’s theory of spatial leadership, where PMs copy the tactics US presidents use to portray themselves as outsiders, and when employed effectively they allow PMs to increase their personal stature. Mrs Thatcher hired advisers to guide her on her image, and emphasise her femininity. Under Blair, perhaps the most significant development was how he focused heavily on media usage. Johnson, it goes without saying, is not someone who ever misses a photo opportunity. This presidentialism suggests PM power has increased.

On the other hand, it is important to note that the office of prime minister is too much for one person and it is unrealistic to suspect that they will be able to control the entire apparatus of government. They lack time, institutional support, interest, or even knowledge – Blair reputedly admitted that he didn’t understand economics, for instance. Under Cameron, Osborne’s importance was apparent within Westminster even before the coalition agreement was hatched. Under Johnson, Rishi Sunak seems to have the upper hand in dictating the economic response to covid. Thus cabinet input still matters, and PM power has not necessarily increased.

Essentially, recent history suggests a PM would be unwise to entirely disregard their cabinet. It was the lack of support from her senior colleagues that mortally wounded Thatcher. Then there is the case of Theresa May. There are many reasons why her premiership is regarded as a failure, and why she had to leave Number 10. Lack of support from her Cabinet colleagues, therefore, is not the sole reason for her downfall, but leaks, plots and a flurry of ministerial resignations left her mortally wounded. Therefore, PM power has not witnessed an increase in this regard.

It is also important to bear in mind that Foley’s theory of presidentialism and “leadership stretch” can be a double-edged sword, and lead to a decline in power. Blair’s conscious attempt to create a singular focus on his personal leadership left him exposed post Iraq. And the May 2017 election campaign, anyone? Therefore, PM power hasn’t increased.

Lastly, George Jones compared the PM’s power to an elastic band, which stretches depending on personality and circumstances. Mrs Thatcher was blessed with large majorities, and was credited with improving economic performance. Allied to this, she was a woman with charisma. Blair echoed this and both are therefore seen as powerful PMs. Their respective successors were less fortunate. Indeed, it seems ridiculous to talk of increased PM power when considering Brown’s time in office: his personality did him no favours, he lacked a mandate, and the economic crisis shattered his credibility as PM. Add May to the mix, and notions of increased PM power seems almost surreal.

In conclusion, it seems accurate to say that PM power waxes and wanes, with some holders of the office apparently more powerful than others. The most convincing piece of analysis of this comes from George Jones, whose theory most sensibly explains why power varies between and within premierships. Take current incumbent changing fortunes in terms of pre-pandemic (up), the response to the pandemic (very much down), and post-vaccine (back up again!). So, ultimately, it seems to be a matter of style over substance.

Mike McCartney

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

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