FNewly installed as prime minister, Boris Johnson returned from Buckingham Palace to tell members of his inner circle that the Queen had told him: “I don’t know why anyone would want the job.” His response to His Majesty is unknown. He could have answered that he had yearned to be the “king of the world” since childhood and securing the keys to Number 10 was the closest available approximation to realizing that ambition.
In theory, the prime minister of the United Kingdom is one of the most powerful positions in the democratic world. Like an American president, he or she is the public face of the country abroad and the central focus of the media at home. Unlike an American president, there is no term limit. As long as he can keep the voters and his party happy enough, he can have a very long reign. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both made it over a decade. John Major is often thought of as a short, miserable interlude between them, but even he scored seven years at No. 10.
Cabinet selections of a US president are subject to approval by the Senate. The British Prime Minister can seat whoever he wants at the head table. You can assemble a team of all talents. Or, as Johnson has shown, you can put together a cabinet of nodding dogs. Coalition government, with all the restrictions and compromises that this implies, is typical in much of Europe. The UK electoral system is designed to make minority votes a one-party rule. In very few other places, 44% of the vote will achieve the overwhelming parliamentary majority secured by the Conservatives in 2019.
A modern prime minister may not be able to operate in the blatantly corrupt way of the first, Sir Robert Walpole, who used a secret service fund to buy parliamentary votes and general elections. But the 55th occupant of number 10 would probably agree with Walpole’s cynical observation that all politicians “have their price.” The prime minister still has a lot of patronage to exercise and the guardrails against scandalous behavior are extremely flexible. Johnson has parachuted his own brother, along with a gang of Brexit and media cronies, into the House of Lords. The lucrative contracts related to Covid have been accelerated into the hands of conservative friends.
As Asquith once pointed out, PMs are free to define work as they wish. They can roam all the government’s activities, they can tap into the finest minds in the country if they have the ingenuity to do so, and they can take the lead in whatever cause they are encouraged by.
However, it is argued that the job has become dysfunctionally difficult in these thought-provoking books of scholars specializing in the study of the office of prime minister. Prime ministers struggle to set their agendas and achieve their goals. They come to the office with their big dreams only to find that most of them fall apart. They try to make things happen by pulling the status levers, then complain that the controls are made of rubber. Prime ministers may appear all-powerful as they strut around the national stage, but behind the scenes we often find a trembling creature constantly struggling to survive and often overwhelmed by the crushing pressures of office. The hectic pace of events and the quick responses demanded by the 24/7 media leaves modern leaders so busy fighting fires that they have little time to reflect or plan. Anthony Seldon wonders: “How much more effective and strategic would prime ministers be if they were allowed more space in their diaries?”
Mark Garnett focuses on an associated problem. From Thatcher onwards, prime ministers and their aides have been possessed by a strong drive to centralize control of both power and ideas at number 10. This has left the building and its main occupant overloaded, while the ability to the Whitehall departments have been “emptied” AND the status of ministers “diminished.” British prime ministers are only so looming in the picture because the rest of the cabinet has become so small.
Both books offer an intelligent and insightful account of the evolution of paper, but I am not convinced that the work has become a unique challenge or that it deserves special sympathy. Seldon insists on the superior longevity of German chancellors, but what about the French? They have recently struggled to find a president they like enough to re-elect. Both François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy were expelled from the Elysee palace after only one period. Emmanuel Macron, who faces elections next year, may suffer the same fate. If you think British politics is a treacherous game, how about the Australian snake pit? Scott Morrison’s four immediate predecessors as prime minister, two Liberals and two Labor, were ousted by their own parties. The carnage in Canberra has been so bloody that some emergency workers have reportedly stopped asking patients to name the prime minister, saying he was no longer a reliable indicator of mental health.
Joe Biden is striving to get off to a good start as President of the United States. Its urgency is informed by the memory that Barack Obama accomplished much in his first two years in the White House, but not during the remaining six, after the midterm elections allowed Republicans to paralyze him in Congress.
The idea that it has become more difficult to be the tenant of Number 10 is surely influenced by a recent series of occupants of the office who have not adjusted to it. Gordon Brown was a formidable chancellor, but a shaky prime minister. His most positive period was during the financial crisis, when he was effectively able to get back to his old job. Theresa May’s introverted and obnoxious personality shuddered in the spotlight falling on a PM. Six years in the defiant role of home secretary proved to be an inadequate formation for the number 10. David Cameron’s essential insanity was discovered when he recklessly promised and then lost the Brexit referendum that blew up his prime ministerial position. Seldon regrets that Cameron would have reached No. 10 without prior ministerial experience and suggests that it is preferable that prime ministers have been put to the test in other cabinet positions. He believes the job is best done by someone in their 50s, old enough to have acquired some wisdom, but still young enough to have the stamina to face the tireless demands of the top position. However, the Brown and May cases suggest that prior experience in the cabinet in no way guarantees success in a role unlike any other in government.
Communication skills and the other qualities we associate with the idea of charisma are often considered an essential prerequisite for a modern leader. But Johnson’s serial blunder of the coronavirus crisis has underscored the vast difference between being a powerful activist and a diligent manager and a light-eyed strategist.
No, it is not an impossible job. Just a very difficult one that demands a wide spectrum of skills, the full set of which are possessed by very few people.
Lest we be tempted to cry over the pressures on a modern prime minister, remember that the trade-offs are considerable. You get the use of a platform in central London and a beautiful country house. The salary is not that bad and you are practically guaranteed a post-prime minister payday at corporate presentations and conferences. As surprising as it may sound, there are people willing to spend over £ 100,000 to hear from Ms May on leadership and even bigger sums for Cameron’s advice on how to be successful.
Andrew Rawnsley is the chief political commentator for the Observer
The impossible office? The story of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon is published by Cambridge University Press (£ 19.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism