Opinion Articles


The ‘ziz-zagging’ of British Prime Ministers


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On becoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented himself as a collegiate chief supportive of collective Cabinet government. He also reduced the number of staff at No.10 and began transferring key functions away from it. This approach seemed strange given his reputation as a 'Stalinist with a clunking fist'. But his actions were within historical patterns set by many predecessors. However, since the political difficulties of last autumn, he has reverted to his old centralising ways. Nevertheless, if he is truly to make his mark as Prime Minister, he should follow the course he took when he initially became premier.

Brown's approach to the premiership can usefully be analysed through the perspective of two historical phenomena. The first is 'zig-zag'. There is a tendency for prime ministers to react against the style of their immediate predecessors. Often an interventionist premier is followed by one who delegates. Disraeli and Gladstone alternated in power between 1868 and 1885. The former was known for his hands-off style: the latter the opposite. In 1916 David Lloyd George sought to provide a dynamic antidote to the directionless leadership of Herbert Asquith. He was followed by Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin whose styles were very different from his Imperial Caesarism. Winston Churchill dominated his colleagues, while his successor, Clement Attlee, did not lead his cabinet but orchestrated a team of prima donnas. Margaret Thatcher led from the front, while John Major seemed to be buffeted by his cabinet of chums. Tony Blair's determination to direct his Government has been seen as a reaction against Major's experience.

Although zig-zag does not apply every time there is a new Prime Minister, such changes of approach are frequent. They may be prompted by the disposition of incoming premiers or their desire to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. The latter motive seems to lie behind the latest case of zig-zag during the changeover from Blair to Brown. Blair was frequently criticised for his tendency to seek personal dominance, bypassing collective decision-making and interfering in departments. Brown wanted to show he was not Blair.

In military engagements the purpose of zig-zagging is to confuse the enemy. It has had a similar effect on some observers of the premiership. The dynamic leadership of Lloyd George, Wilson and Thatcher prompted exaggerated claims, such as allegations that a presidency was being established. But zig-zag refers to how the role is exercised. To describe changes in its configuration another concept is required: institutional fusion and fission.

The British premiership is a cluster of people and functions - over time they may move towards the office of Prime Minister, that is fusion. Tasks such as being sole Cabinet adviser to the monarch on ministerial appointments and dissolutions of Parliament were absorbed into the No.10 remit; and the total number of staff has generally risen over the last century-and-a-half. But at the same time, some duties and personnel have moved out in the fragmenting process of fission. While fusion has been widely remarked upon and often used as evidence of growing prime-ministerial dominance, the countervailing tendency has largely been ignored. During the twentieth century responsibilities and staff have moved away from the premier, including the leadership of the House of Commons and more recently the Delivery Unit, which has increasingly been absorbed into the Treasury. The most important example of fission occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when prime ministers ceased to be directly responsible for the Treasury. This separation marked the transition of the office from its first phase - that of a finance minister with additional coordinating functions - to its second, when premiers were generally without a specific department and accompanying policy brief.

Under Blair substantial fusion took place. The terms of reference of the Cabinet Office were altered to transform it into a body charged with servicing the Prime Minister rather than supporting collective government. In effect Blair returned the premier to being a departmental minister. If this change becomes fixed, the office of Prime Minister will have entered a third phase. But from late on in the Blair period, and initially under Brown, fission occurred. In 2006 Blair re-wrote the objectives of the Cabinet Office once more to include supporting Cabinet as well as the premier. Brown retained this wording. He reduced the number of partisan special advisers employed at No.10. The Delivery Unit, which answered directly to Blair and helped him intervene in various public services, was shifted formally to the Treasury, reporting jointly to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. Decisions over war-making and regulating the Civil Service, in which premiers take a leading role, are to be subjected to clearer parliamentary accountability. Another proposal, which has received little media attention, marks an historically significant ceding of authority. The power to make decisions on the appointment of bishops - a function exercised by premiers since the eighteenth century - is to be handed to the Church of England.

But political difficulties such as embarrassment over the non-election and lost data - neither of which would obviously have been prevented by an augmented prime-ministerial team - seem to have encouraged in Brown a change of approach. He has made new high-profile appointments at No.10, including for the first time in history a Permanent Secretary, Jeremy Heywood. The terms of reference of the Cabinet Office have been edged away from supporting the collective and back towards the premier again.

One of the weaknesses of the early days of his government he sought to correct is that of indecisiveness. Too often, government action waited on his personal go-ahead, which he was reluctant to provide until he had scrutinised an issue in detail. But employing more aides and re-absorbing the Cabinet Office will not necessarily solve this problem. He must be prepared to delegate either, as Blair did, to his personal staff, or preferably to Cabinet ministers, in whom legal authority for policy is vested. Increased centralisation can only exacerbate a difficulty it is already causing.

In initially portraying himself as a collegiate leader, and shifting duties away from his control, Brown had clear precedents. This approach was to be expected in the wake of a figure as dominant and aggrandising as Blair. Brown judged correctly the political environment in which he was operating; and perhaps that even a dramatically enlarged centre cannot practically take the lead in policy-making and other government business on the scale attempted by Blair. But there is a danger that under political pressure Brown is forgetting these insights. For this reason he must return to his initial path and resist reversion to his default tendency to dominate and accumulate functions. Worse problems than those faced at present by Brown - such the IMF crisis that James Callaghan dealt with in 1976 - were effectively managed through collegiate methods. To do otherwise is to risk generating resentment amongst his Cabinet colleagues, overload himself and his team, and lose an opportunity to be recorded by history as a great reforming Prime Minister.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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