This year marks the 300th anniversary of the office of prime minister, so it’s probably about time we asked: is the post fit for purpose? Agreed, in the three centuries since George I called on Robert Walpole to head his 1721 administration, there have been several outstanding figures in the job. Some, like Attlee, used their position to drive through lasting, beneficial reform. Others, like Churchill, rose to the challenge of leadership in times of profound national crisis. Others still, like Lloyd George, did both. But maybe the events of the past 12 months have shown what happens when a role grows and expands to bursting and then is concentrated unchecked on one person of inadequate character.
A year on from the start of the pandemic, we now have the data on Boris Johnson’s inability to get to grips early enough with the crisis. It shows a repeated pattern of deferring tough decisions to late on in the day, until those decisions became no longer tough but pretty bloody obvious. We also have the data on how catastrophic that behaviour was. The missed meetings, the blinkered wishful thinking, the inability to take on board lessons learned. My concern is not so much whether the Prime Minister was up to the job but why we have a system that couldn’t do anything about it when he so clearly wasn’t. The problem was highlighted when Johnson was incapacitated with Covid and all we were left with was a Raab caught in the headlights, too powerless to decide for himself what to do, and with no system in place for even collective decision-making to go ahead. Politics was stalled until the boss came back. No company would be set up like this, so why the country?
We forget that most of the big-hitting prime ministers of the past not only had to be good team players, but very often they had to play well in a team of rivals. Lloyd George’s entire career was built on building factions and coalitions; Churchill fought the war in partnership with his opposition; Attlee’s genius was in promoting rival talent and letting them get on with it. Even Thatcher, considered the most rigid of our recent premiers, spent most of her time maintaining a balance in her cabinet of “wets” and “dries”. Indeed, it was when she tried to go too much of her own way on Europe and the poll tax that she fell. Contrast this with Johnson, who sees himself as Churchill and Thatcher in one conglomerated golden-haired blob, yet who ejected not just from government but from the party any senior figure who dared question him on Brexit.
It could be that today’s political leaders have mentally exaggerated the need for dominance. Blair aped Thatcher but thought that meant he had to run every department from his sofa in No 10, with a team of enforcers fanning across Whitehall telling every minister what to do and say. This kind of management is not only inefficient but exhausting, which is why Blair left Downing Street looking like a prune. But it dictated the model for government, bequeathed to Gordon Brown and eagerly copied by David Cameron. By the time Theresa May popped up, the format had been set: the prime minister had total power across legislation, agenda, economy, messaging and personnel.
May came into office unelected by the public, but still felt emboldened enough to clear out from cabinet those who didn’t agree with her. Johnson merely built on that formula exponentially, eviscerating sources of opposition within the party and centralising all policy and power in a small team no more than several footsteps from his office and far away from parliament. And so the role of prime minister hardened into something that seemed defined by historical precedent, but was in reality an aberration. First Among Equals has ended up as First And Don’t You Fucking Forget It!
This matters, because a British PM with a working majority exercises more power than any other leader of a major democracy. He or she is executive, legislature and even judiciary rolled into one. If you think that last category’s a bit of a stretch, remember Blair created the Supreme Court and Johnson can abolish it if he wants. (Hint: he does.) A PM can enlarge or eviscerate local governments, parish councils, national institutions and police powers depending on appetite and mood, which is why the downgrading of scrutiny is such a frightening trend.
Meanwhile, the opposition has done everything to validate the power grab. In the lurch in Labour from Ed Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn to Keir Starmer we have seen new leaders copy the habit of killing off internal dissent or divergence of opinion, as if it’s standard practice every few years to give the membership ideological whiplash.
This affects all of us, since it takes the political agenda one further – and dangerous – step away from the voters. Prime ministers used to enter No 10 declaring they will govern for everyone. Now, as soon as they shut the door, they clear out anybody who’s come within a cat’s breath of disagreeing with them, which makes governing for everyone the last thing they can do. Meanwhile, the number of disenfranchised swells outside: those who didn’t vote for the governing party, those who did but have a difference of opinion with the leader, and all those MPs who thought they’d been elected to make some sort of difference. That leaves behind an increasingly frustrated majority in the country on whose collective face the door to political debate is being heartily slammed.
This is not a healthy place to be. Without meaningful debate, our politics becomes stagnant. Brexit and Covid are the biggest crises since the Second World War; in times like this, our leaders tell us we must all come together as a country. How can we, when the example we’re given from the top is to block dissent as much as possible? And when total power rests unchecked on the whims of a limited oaf?
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021