In the News

Sunak and the power of the PM

Mike McCartney

10th January 2024

How does the PM's use of media fit with Foley's thesis?

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: He said himself that he had “little interest in parliament”

•Media: Blair's 1997 government co-opted may ideas from the Clinton administration and the idea of a permanent campaign in government, as witnessed by, for example, the elevation of spin doctors

•Direct appeal/crisis management: related to this, Blair often tried to use his personal charisma and authority in trying to connect with the electorate. I think this is personified in his speech after the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales (see below)

In a previous post I applied this model to one of Sunak's predecessor's, Boris 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 noted how Johnson’s image was 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."
  • Direct appeal/crisis management: "Get Brexit done" at the 2019 election.

Of course, it is always worth noting that some PMs are more successful at this than others. In may ways, this is why the power of the PM waxes and wanes both between and within premierships.

An attempt to apply this to the current incumbent.

But, as I've said before, this presidentialisation of the office of the Prime Minister is very much a double edged sword. By becoming the focus of government, the personal success of the person at No 10 is not only magnified, but when things go wrong (and this is politics, so it is inevitable that any ship will be blown off course), then these failures are subject to the same magnification.

It's worth having a look at some attempts by Sunak and his media team, just to end this post...

Mike McCartney

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

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