The modern Prime Minister

Print edition : September 15, 2001

I do not know how many members of the House realise what exactly is the machinery by which collective responsibility (of the Council of Ministers to the Lok Sabha) is enforced... The only sanction through which collective responsibility can be enforced is through the Prime Minister... It is only when Members of the Cabinet both in the matter of their appointment as well as in the matter of their dismissal are placed under the Prime Minister that it would be possible to realise our ideal of collective responsibility.

AS an exposition of Articles 74 and 75 of the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's observations, in the Constituent Assembly on December 30, 1948, cannot be faulted. But, as we know from experience, the Prime Minister's standing in the Cabinet varies with the political situation, not only from party to party but within the same party. The Indira Gandhi who presided over the Cabinet from 1966 to 1969 was vastly different from the one who lorded over it from 1972 to 1977, having secured a firm position in the interregnum (1969-72).

Atal Behari Vajpayee gives every indication that he wields less authority over his Cabinet now than he did, say, a year ago. Every Prime Minister has to reckon with his party, with Parliament and with the national mood. But a Prime Minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party has to reckon additionally with the mentors of the party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Its assertiveness in recent months has undermined Vajpayee's authority and prestige.

It was after his famous dinner to the RSS' top brass and their man in his Cabinet, L.K. Advani, on December 1, 2000 that he raised the Ayodhya issue, only to make a tactical retreat. The Tehelka exposures last March provided grist to the RSS' mill. Vajpayee made a desperate attempt at fence-mending at lunch on May 12 with the RSS leaders. It was a weak Vajpayee who went to Agra and a weaker Prime Minister who emerged from there, as his apologia to the BJP's National Executive on July 28 revealed. He now gives the impression of "being in office but not in power" to use Norman Lamont's famous words addressed to Prime Minister John Major. Vajpayee's angry offer to resign, on July 31, cited fissures in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP and the RSS could not have been absent in his reckoning.

Vallabhbhai Patel said at the outset, on June 7, 1947, that India had opted for "the British type of Constitution". However, in Britain the Prime Minister's office has changed significantly over the years. Yet there is, unlike India, no PMO (Prime Minister's Office). Prof. Michael Lee wrote in 1995: "The debate has moved beyond the issue which was voiced in the 1970s of whether to recognise the evolution of the Cabinet office into a Prime Minister's department... Nothing has happened to transform a basic proposition of British government: a strong Prime Minister does not need a Prime Minister's department, while a weak Prime Minister who may need one lacks the power to create it." Opposition to it would be overwhelming.

This work by Prof. Richard Rose describes the current state of the office of the Prime Minister with stark realism. Tony Blair has amassed enormous power, yet remains vulnerable to attack and defeat. On July 17, scores of Labour members of Parliament joined political opponents and rebelled against him when he tried to sack two vocal critics, both Labourites, from their respective parliamentary select committees. The government's huge majority was of no avail. It speaks a lot for the author's perspicacity that, after describing the Blair revolution, he should write: "The character of MPs may alter, but there is no going back to a House of Commons full of backbenchers who regard it as a resting place after years in the trade union movement or as a duty to perform, like being the lord lieutenant of a shire county." The MP can no longer be taken for granted.

Blair is no less authoritarian than Margaret Thatcher was. "Tony Blair has also made significant and irreversible alterations in the new-style Prime Ministership. First, Number Ten now has a far larger political staff than ever before, and the political staff has more authority over civil servants. Such a gain in power is unlikely to be surrendered by Blair's successor. Second, the authority of the Westminster Parliament over all parts of the United Kingdom has been qualified by elected assemblies for Scotland and Wales, an elected Mayor for London, and a Northern Ireland government supported by the Republic of Ireland and the White House as well as Westminster. Third, the authority of Westminster is also subject to constraints of the European Convention on Human Rights. Finally, the old ideological battles about the boundaries between state and market have been ended by the adoption of Blatcherite policies."

The work rests on two fundamental propositions. The Prime Minister's power has increased greatly within the country, but it has diminished greatly outside because the United Kingdom is no longer a great power. Secondly, the "new style" Prime Minister differs radically from those of the old school. "For the new-style Prime Minister, the box that counts is the television set rather than the despatch box next to the Mace in the House of Commons. What is said on television matches or surpasses in importance what is said in Westminster. In Opposition, Tony Blair and his associates showed extraordinary concentration on the crucial question facing an Opposition leader: how do I win the next general election? After gaining the biggest parliamentary majority in well over half a century, the challenge is one of policy; what do I do in government? A leaked memo by Blair's polling consultant, Philip Gould, offers an answer: 'Unless you handle the media well, you cannot govern competently'."

New-style Prime Ministers pay less attention to Parliament and to party. "They see their authority as deriving from the electorate. Margaret Thatcher expected to use every platform available to her as a 'bully pulpit' from which to expound her convictions. With control of the New Labour organisation in his hands and a much enlarged staff in Number Ten, Tony Blair expects MPs and party workers to do what he expects, whether or not he meets the expectations of veteran Labour supporters."

A Prime Minister is concerned with both politics and policy. Blair's populism seeks to blur choices in policy-making. He aspires to be a national leader, governing by consensus. Asquith's famous remark that "the office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make it" is only partially true. He must, above all, meet the expectations formed before he enters Downing Street. He "must always keep in mind the demands of both politics and policy". He must be bold enough to invest his political capital in making policy decisions in the national interest even at the risk of losing some popularity. A populist leader invites distrust in the long run.

Every Prime Minister has his own inner circle of advisers. Students of the PMO in India would do well to study the British innovation, the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street, which was set up by Harold Wilson in 1974. "The Unit monitored departmental actions of concern to Downing Street and wrote memoranda and issues for the Prime Minister. Policy Unit staff were recruited from a variety of backgrounds, political apparatchiks, academics, journalists and pressure groups. Each staffer was given the task of shadowing one or more ministries, and attending some departmental or inter-departmental meetings on behalf of Downing Street. When civil servants and departmental ministers found that some Policy Unit staff carried influence in Downing Street, they consulted and squared them before sending memoranda to the Prime Minister on which the Unit's staff would comment." It comprises civil servants as well as party political staff. Blair has trebled the political staff which has prompted the Conservatives to accuse him of "politicising" the prime ministership.

In contrast, "the Cabinet Office is far larger than Number Ten; its officials are very able civil servants; and it routinely monitors all Whitehall departments and provides the secretariat for inter-departmental committees. A new Performance and Innovation Unit has been established to monitor programmes cutting across departmental committees. The Cabinet Office also has sufficient staff to monitor links between domestic Whitehall departments and the European Commission, an important task in a world of increasingly intermestic politics. Blair has described the takeover of the Cabinet Office as creating 'the corporate headquarters of the civil service in order to meet the corporate objectives of the government as a whole, rather than just the objectives of individual departments'."

To become a Prime Minister and retain the job, the leader must be a vote-getter. If he fails in this test, he is shown the door, as Margaret Thatcher discovered in 1990 when her popularity dwindled - a lesson Blair would do well to heed. Sooner or later a sequence of unexpected or mishandled events and a threatened or actual electoral defeat can create disillusionment in the electorate. "However tall a Prime Minister stands at the pinnacle of success, like King Charles I, on leaving Westminster he or she is usually a head shorter." Blair's obsession with media management will be of little help because the media are today more assertive than ever before. There has been a sea change in journalistic values.

"Today, the media see themselves as players in the Westminster game. Most journalists and editors now believe that they, rather than Downing Street, ought to be the ultimate arbiters of what the public should know."

A Prime Minister's authority depends on his relationship with the party. Attlee could brutally tick off Harold Laski, the Chairman of the Labour Party. "You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the government and a period of silence on your part would be welcome." Few Prime Ministers would use such language.

Blair has "disciplined" the party, reduced his involvement in Parliament's proceedings and "downgraded Cabinet". The arrogant Peter Mandelson justified this: "The era of pure representative democracy is coming slowly to an end." Which explains the MPs' revolt on July 17 as well as Mandelson's own defeat in the election to the party's national executive.

This book provides a sound warning of the perils a Prime Minister faces vis-a-vis his colleagues, his MPs, civil servants, the media and the public at large. Blair would do well to heed his warnings; especially since only last September his "attempt to substitute politics for policy and manage public opinion" was challenged in the streets and in the party's annual conference. He responded with impassioned oratory, convincing few.

"Tony Blair's claim to be Prime Minister of all the people does not produce the end of politics; it is a continuation of politics by other means. Instead of accepting that elections, parliamentary debate and Cabinet discussions involve differences of opinion, Blair seeks to marginalise those whose views disagree with him, since they cannot be speaking for 'all' the people. His response threatens to turn managed populism into repressive populism. Politics without policy can take an MP to Number Ten but it leaves wide open what happens thereafter."

The book abounds in delightful quotes and the author's own bons mots. One deserves reproduction for the benefit of those who aspire to replace a Prime Minister - the one who wields the dagger seldom acquires the crown.

The Prime Minister in a Shrinking World

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor