Ra, ra, Rasputin

The Powers Behind the Prime Minister: The Hidden Influence of Number Ten

Dennis Kavanagh and Antho

This is a flattering book. I blush to read it. "Probably no other single figure was so important to her [Margaret Thatcher] during her premiership," it says of me. Two cabinet secretaries, the book claims, tried and failed to get rid of me and umpteen ministers felt ill-used by me. No wonder John Biffen called me "that rough-spoken Yorkshire Rasputin". I have to be made to live up to this over-mighty reputation.

Messrs Kavanagh and Seldon do their best in trying to fill in the "missing link" in the understanding of British government and politics - the workings of No 10. If only they knew how hard it was to strike the red blood of reliable information out of the wilfully anaemic stone of the official machine, how often I was reduced to treating a secretive prime minister like a crossword puzzle and how regularly I thanked God for my political instincts.

There is only one thing to do when confronted with this journalistic or academic hype: lie back and enjoy it. It does not, however, promote confidence when the authors of it rely so much on stale gossip, so inadequately sketch such events as the "Westland affair" and the Great Lobby Revolt that hardly was and get so much detail just plain wrong. I did not accentuate the anti-EC nature of the Bruges speech. I did not put the black spot on cabinet ministers, but I think I know a man or two who did. I was not made acting head of the Central Office of Information; I was appointed head of the Government Information Service, which is different. A deputy of mine is missing from the factual appendices, and you would not immediately have found me - or the gents - had you relied on their plans of No 10 on page eight.

This is a pity, because these academics work hard to explain what has gone on behind the black door over the past 30 years. If you don't look too closely at the detail, it rings fairly true on the basis of my experience and observation. The authors are also suitably unsensational. The only news story they have generated is the idea, canvassed at the very end and encouraged by some current No 10 staff, that the prime minister should abandon his crowded HQ and transform No 10 into a "Museum of British Premiership". They could then chalk up another sacrifice of tradition on the altar of modernity and efficiency.

This is not likely to happen yet awhile. As the authors concede, we have not yet got the prime minister's department for which they seem to hanker, although Tony Blair is "Bonaparteist" and his No 10 is loaded to the gunwales with political advisers. His staff has roughly doubled since those spartan Thatcher days when we were required to set an example in Stakhanovite asceticism.

I wonder what they now do apart from sit on each other, indulge their obsession with the media and mark the millennium by writing Blair's 1,000th excruciatingly boring newspaper article. There isn't much to show for it yet, apart from a commendable determination to remain as financially prudent as Thatcher, while giving the impression of spending like water as initiative after initiative is recycled.

The fascination of this book lies not in all the tinkering with machinery, the differing prime ministerial styles or the attempts to explain their foibles, failures and falls. No, it is what No 10 is going to be like after Blair, given the tendency of prime ministers to react to their predecessors. This could be the Kavanagh/Seldon pendulum law of British politics, if they claim it quickly.

The stiff, unbending Heath was the antithesis of Wilson, the Archie Rice of British politics. So, in a different way, was Callaghan. Thatcher was the fierce reaction to the constitutional weakness which came before her. Major was Thatcher without the handbag and much else, too. And Blair is a reaction not only to Major's perceived lack of leadership, but also to the anarchy and indiscipline of dogma-ridden old Labour that masqueraded as glorious democracy.

He may be the most fortunate of all postwar prime ministers, as one of the book's diagrams suggests, but he is also the most exposed: he can only make things worse. When he fails - as they all do if they don't get out in time - what then? It does not take a genius to see a less presidential prime minister with a more collegiate cabinet, more forceful departments and a less-bloated No 10 with a stripped-down political commissariat, an ascendant Civil Service and a saner, more balanced approach to media relations. A sort of normality will return, just as it did when Major succeeded Thatcher.

With one exception. I trust that Blair's entirely commendable view that policy formation and its presentation/communication are part of a single process called good government will endure. My successors will then have an easier time of it than I had - provided their principal knows his or her own mind and sticks to it. That is worth a lot of bright bods and oiled machinery. It also pretty well guarantees an effective but abused press secretary.

Bernard Ingham was press secretary to Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1990

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser