The rise and rise of President Blair

Jackie Ashley reveals a proposal to formalise the PM's powers and to give Britain a US-style constit

As Tony Blair returns from yet another whirl of high-diplomacy hobnobbing around the globe, I am forced to ask the question, how much like a duck is a president? You remember the old saying - if it walks like a duck, if it looks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck . . . then it's a duck. Similarly, although there are lots of academic, legal descriptions of what a president is, we are surely not far from the point where Tony Blair looks like a president, talks like a president, acts like a president, and therefore perhaps is a president. People have been pontificating almost from his first week in No 10 about Blair's "presidential" style. Now a Labour MP has taken this a step further. Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North and a government whip until the post-election reshuffle, asserts that Tony Blair is not the prime minister of a parliamentary democracy. He really is President Blair.

Allen wants us all to "honestly confront the truth" of the UK presidency: "Getting the current prime minister to 'come out' as president will be a key moment," he believes. Hmm. About as likely as getting Blair to come out as a drug-taking trans-sexual, I'd have thought, but you never know. Allen has devoted thousands of words to explaining his argument in a booklet soon to be published entitled The Last Prime Minister: being honest about the UK presidency; but he kindly summarises it like this: "The UK has, in effect, a presidency. We should recognise it. We should welcome it. We should democratically control it."

According to Allen, this unacknowledged change in our political system has been "the product not of conspiracy, but of events". Our "hidden presidency" is not a duck, but "an 800lb gorilla", which stands alongside what he sees as "a wizened legislature and judiciary" and creates a gross imbalance. Unlike the American system, he points out, there is no separation of powers, there are no jealously guarded checks and balances. This is half-familiar. Many on the left worried in the old days about the growth of a kind of presidential court around Margaret Thatcher - the unelected advisers with huge powers; the swaggering way she identified herself personally with the UK, to the extent of angering the Queen; the ruthless exercise of patronage and off-record briefings to bypass dissent - and have seen it all multiply in the Blair years.

Like Thatcher, Blair has projected himself as the true voice of the British people (the death of Diana, the response to 11 September). He has built up a formidable group of unelected politicians around him - Alastair Campbell, Anji Hunter, Jonathan Powell, Derry Irvine, Charlie Falconer. In the conditions of this "war", the No 10 machine grabs ever more authority to itself. Parliament languishes, an occasional theatre for Blair's performances, but one he famously disdains. He may formally depend on the party majority for his power, but that majority is so large that it does not cause him a moment's thought.

The cabinet, once a real forum for national debate, is little more than a rubber stamp. Ministers will proudly tell you that meetings now last up to an hour, instead of the 15 minutes known under the first new Labour government. But the issues of the day are not discussed - rather, the line is handed down. I asked a cabinet minister recently whether the Jo Moore e-mail (about burying bad news on the day of the twin towers attack) had been discussed at cabinet. "Oh no," came the reply, "that's not the sort of thing we talk about." What about the appalling state of the rail service in this country? "No, that wouldn't really be appropriate either."

The formidable press operation run by No 10 only increases the presidential feel. Partly, it's the demands of the modern mass media - television needs pictures of someone getting in and out of cars and walking in and out of buildings - so the Prime Minister's profile inflates daily. But it's also true that ministers have been successfully intimidated about dealing with the media on their own, without going through the strict conduit of the No 10 press office.

OK, you may say, but we know all this. Where Graham Allen is different - refreshingly, shockingly different - is that he says he welcomes the UK presidency. He wants a huge reshaping of the British constitution, so that the presidency is separated from parliament, which would in turn become "the forum of the nation" and much more like the US Congress. The elected president would be able to form a cabinet of exactly whom he wanted, rather than just of Labour MPs. Then, says Allen, parliament could become a real check on the executive and far more radical than the humiliated institution it is now.

It is a cogent argument, and I have to admit to being impressed. It has a refreshing, common-sense feel to it. Allen has sometimes been in danger of becoming new Labour's answer to Bill Cash, an obsessive not about Europe but about constitutional reform, prone to stopping people in the corridors of Westminster and haranguing them. But Cash looks backwards, and Allen forwards.

But I hope he doesn't win the argument. These problems may go back to the 1640s, as he says, but not all of us have given up on the idea of a genuine parliamentary democracy, or want to ape the United States in our political system, as we seem to in everything else. Would Tony Blair really be more in touch with public opinion here, as he bestrides the world, without that link to parliament and to the Labour Party?

Would this really be a better government if Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Robin Cook, Clare Short, and all those other ministers whom Blair wouldn't otherwise give table-room to, were chucked out of the cabinet and replaced by Islington cronies, well-padded lawyers and fashionable think-tank types?

And if we are worried about the spread of unelected power in No 10, and the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for globe-trotting at the expense of the dull business of improving public services, would it make things better to formalise this and give him even more personal authority than he already has?

I think that Allen has produced a brilliant diagnosis of what's wrong - Prime Minister Blair is becoming President Blair - but his remedy is the wrong prescription. We should, by all means, deal with the unpleasant growths that he identifies - such as the spread of royal prerogatives or special executive powers. But we should cut them away. We should be talking about the restoration of parliament, which is a good old idea in need of revival - government of the people, by the people.

Lots of cynics will say that it is too late. The Commons is stuffed with mediocre, cringing time-servers. Downing Street has a stranglehold on the media. The whips are too powerful. The party has lost its fight.

We know the arguments. But is Graham Allen not already a little behind the times?

Parliament First, the back-bench pressure group, has already scored one important victory in the appointment of select committees. The whips' office cannot control the anti-war MPs. There are now plenty of people on the back benches who have either been sacked or know they will never be given a government job - and are therefore prone to rebellion. This second-term government is precisely not the moment to be giving up on parliament. While the war cabinet gets on with the war, some of the big beasts around the cabinet table - Blunkett for one - are seizing their moment.

However much unelected officials in No 10 might grind their teeth, they can hardly complain - this remains, in theory at least, a cabinet government operating in a parliamentary democracy. I for one would like to keep it that way.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair