Starmer’s politburo?

Starmer’s politburo?

Fixing the Centre

The Institute for Government (IfG) produced a report recently in which they analyse the power, influence, and success of the machinery supporting prime ministers. They came up with a number of recommendations. Amongst constitutional law geeks there has been some excitement although I wonder whether this is warranted or not. One campaigning ally of mine described it as the road to Stalinism, but I think not. The Times takes a more measured approach, although the Times’ language suggests that it was fed by a Labour source.  The IfG report was produced by a commission consisting of the great and the good, and a number of ex-Civil Servants.

Possibly the most concise definition of the problem made by the IfG is,

The prime minister has over time become ever more of an executive leader of the government, but the support they are given has not kept pace with their responsibilities. The centre of government fails to set and maintain an overall strategy for the government to follow. The resulting vacuum is filled by the powerful Treasury.

I question the idea that Prime Ministers want to be strategic in terms of delivery; much of their exercise of control would seem to be aimed at managing/delaying the succession plans of others.

“The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you.”

Winston Churchill

The IfG then argue that one of the reasons for such a power vacuum is an inadequate Office of the Prime Minister. They observe, correctly in my view, the cabinet has ceased to be an effective decision-making body. Some of this is by design of numerous prime ministers, other factors include the mushroom therapy operated by the Treasury, and the lack of time spent in cabinet meetings. The last factor is not compensated by the use of cabinet committees.

This is a long standing problem, possibly dating back to the sixties when Harold Wilson instantiated the No 10 Policy Unit  which was designed to think long term and led by Bernard Donoughue. We should if considering delivery management and its political accountability note that Wilson also demerged economics from the Treasury creating a Department of Economic affairs. The Wikipedia page, details how Tony Blair set priorities with sub-units specified for strategy and delivery. This all shows that is not a new problem and it’s rarely been solved well.

The IfG recommend taking the management of the civil service out of No 10, appointing a cabinet member as responsible and carving the Head of the Civil Service role out from the Cabinet Secretary’s. Also, the department for the civil service should be demerged from the Cabinet Office; there is a talent management argument in favour of this. The IfG argues that the Civil Service has the wrong skills nexus for delivery. (This is a very old criticism, and I for one, believe the impermanence and short-termism of ministers is also, possibly a more important, part of the problem.)

While dissing the Cabinet, they suggest that their proposal of an inner cabinet is in fact already common practice; I would suggest that they underestimate the reliance that Prime Minsters have made of special advisors as opposed to other Ministers: Johnson/Cummings, Blair/Powell, and Thatcher/Ingham.

They argue for a new Civil Service Board to hold the Service’s leadership accountable for reform priorities. (This is the shortest part of the summary and I feel the least well argued. While the language is much more moderate than Thatcher and her team would have used, these are criticisms that they made, that the civil service were not committed to programme and manifesto. These complaints were repeated by Johnson and Gove. The Thatcherite answer was non-departmental bodies and replacing those permanent secretaries they considered butskellites and insufficiently committed to the agenda. I note that Permanent Secretaries, the financial accounting officers, are now on 5-year fixed term contracts. ) One reform I’d like to see is the reduction on politicians influence in the appointment of .and if Braverman’s custody of the Home Office is anything to go by, the management of their Permanent Secretaries.)

The IfG also propose, “to ensure the Priorities for Government are translated into a coherent strategy, collective government priorities will be fully reflected in a new, shared, strategy, budget and performance management process at the centre of government. This will be managed by the secretariat in the new DPMC”.  Are they breaking up the Treasury? They say not.

In summary, they propose,

  1. A five year plan (😉)
  2. An inner cabinet
  3. A first secretary of state responsible for delivery and the civil service
  4. A separate Department for the Civil Service
  5. a new statute for the civil service and a Civil Service Board
  6. The roles of cabinet secretary (accountable to the prime minister) and head of the civil service (accountable to the first secretary) should be filled by separate individuals.
  7. The government’s priorities should be fully reflected in a new, shared strategy, budget and performance management process owned collectively at the centre of government.

Hardly a route to the gulags.

There is a problem, it’s rarely been solved and these reforms are not exactly revolutionary. Prime Ministers have many tools to exclude the Cabinet, they don’t need more permission.

An unanswered question

I’ll finish with a slight diversion, three of their proposed reforms relate to management of priorities and talent in the Civil Service. They do this without mentioning pay, probably because they know that it would go down like a cup of sick at a banquet within the Labour Party. Civil servants don’t just work in Whitehall and the average pay for crown employees is not very high as the IFG observe. The national minimum wage is about £20,150 and it would seem that a number of civil servants earn less than that. Despite the huge outsourcing initiatives that have occurred since 79, much civil service work is done by junior people and pay restraint is an issue in recruiting and retaining skills and talent at all levels, especially as the report notes where there are shortages in project management, procurement, and information technology. …

The luck and fate of post-war premiers

We have a new Prime Minister and ex-Prime Minister. Every time we change PM without an election there is a call for an election, but, rightly that’s not how we do things. However I have revised my history chart.

Prime Ministers, duration of office, means of becoming PM and reasons for departure

The chart was originally designed to help understand if those that inherited the office were more successful electorally than those that became PM by winning a general election. Our recent history skews the data towards the idea that it is not the case. although some might consider me generous in saying that May is a successful inheritor; she remained Prime Minister. With Truss’s resignation, I have to introduce a new category of a PM that didn’t fight an election but I have classified her as ‘couped’.

For Labour we can safely say, that it acquires the premiership through elections and it is unsuccessful in sustaining its inheritors, Callaghan and Brown. The Tory case is more complex, and skewed by its recent post Brexit referendum history, but only Douglas-Hume inherited the office and failed to win an election, but he was set up.

On first examination this is not so easy to read, and maybe I should consider the colour coding of the categories but, Up means that they became PM by winning a general election and all the up bars are solid colours, with blue and red being obvious to non US readers. Bars going down represent administrations that came into being mid-parliament, and a dark hatching is because the PM successfully won re-election, and the light hatching that they did not. Truss is actually a purple, as uniquely she did not fight an election.

The data file (in excel) is here. Feel free to copy it and see if you can find out more. Let me know if you do.  …

A short history of the British constitution


How have the British ‘improved’ their constitution over the last 100 years. I have a look but conclude with how the Government is riding roughshod over what puny safeguards exist. I look at parliamentary sovereignty, suffrage, the parliament acts, the impact of the EU on the constitution, human rights act, the House of Lords and supreme court, and finally the Prime Minister. I conclude with a sad cry to do better.

Yet even more on Prime Ministers and their Mandates

Yet even more on Prime Ministers and their Mandates

I have again revised the diagram I use to illustrate the nature of Prime Ministerial mandates which I last revised a day or two ago. I started thinking about the reasons, other than electoral defeat that leads to prime ministerial departure; it comes down to ill-health or coup, and in parliament, it’s the support of your own party that is critical. I have amended the chart, to show the two reasons for departure and posted it on my wiki.

Three points, as prime ministers get younger they are less likely to resign for reasons of health although the job is much tougher today and all recent ex-prime ministers looked terrible as they resigned, except John Major who was obviously getting a lot of exercise.

My initial diagram was inaccurate in that it showed Eden as a losing inheritor, this isn’t true, he called an election which increased his majority, perhaps Gordon Brown should have studied this episode in history more carefully, but it is unlikely that it would have overcome his risk aversion or cowardice; you choose the word.

Prime Ministers: Insurgents and Inheritors & reasons for departure

Macmillan & Cameron are interesting. Cameron didn’t succumb to ill health, unless not being arsed has become a medical condition, so I count this as a coup. There are friends that dispute this, but he hd clearly lost the confidence of the nation and should have resigned. Macmillan had lost the confidence of his parliamentary party, what with all the shagging and lying, (how times change) but he had enough control to deny those who were plotting the succession because the Tories didn’t do anything as vulgar as have elections in those days.

So my theorem is that Prime Ministers that test their popularity on accession are more successful, with the examples of Douglas-Home, Callaghan (maybe), Brown and May being illustrations of failures who failed to compete within their Party or go to the country.

A second suggestion from the evidence is that either Heath’s 1970-4 administration was a fluke interruption of a 15 year Wilson government or that by selecting Douglas-Home, the Tories gifted Wilson the 64 election which he won by only four seats. Obviously, it can’t be both.  If the latter, this shows the shocking success of the Tory Party in selecting its premiers as election winners. If Maudling or Butler has succeeded McMillan, and then beaten Wilson, our governments would have looked like Italy or Japan, or West Germany. Douglas-Home is the only Tory Prime Minister not to have won re-election.


 I originally published a model in an article called “Mandates” and revised it in an article, ‘PMs and “coronations”’, in which I looked at Theresa May’s record; I made some notes in a wiki article, “Confidence of the House“. …

More about PM’s mandates

More about PM’s mandates

I have from time to time reviewed the politics and history of how Britiain’s post-war prime ministers came to power. Earlier today I was reminded of my surprise at school on learning of how Von Papen replaced Brüning ,wondering how someone from the same side could succeed someone who had lost a vote of no-confidence. At the time in the UK, party government was secure and sectarian, although this was about to change.  I published a model in an article called “Mandates” and revised it in an article, ‘PMs and “coronations”’, in which I looked at Theresa May’s record, which caused my model problems of definition. I was inclined to believe that now both the major parties have “primary” leadership elections, party coronations are not successful. May is a case in point while Johnson had to fight a member’s ballot. Anyway, as this Tory administration reaches, what if there were any justice, its denouement, here’s what the chart looks like today.

It only shows those leaders who became prime minister; politics may have changed to the point where we need to include those leaders who lost elections as well.

I first explored this in 2010 when the press were claiming that Gordon Brown was squatting in No. 10 after they had monstered him for not seeking a mandate in 2008. Good politics might suggest that he should have done so. …

All change

It’s been a week in politics; the UK has a new Prime Minister, the once London’s formerly very occasional Mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. This rather eclipses the LibDem’s announcement that they too have a new Leader, one Jo Swinson. This will make for interesting times.

So Corbyn has outlasted two Tory Premier’s, although, one tweeter, probably not a fan, said it was like saying she had outlasted two of Brad Pitt’s wives. …

Electing a Prime Minister

It’s been an exciting couple of days in British Politics. One interesting fact that I was pointed at by Paddy Ashdown on the Radio this morning is that of the 12 Prime Ministers since the 2nd World War, only 6 came to office by winning an election. i.e. Only 50% of post war Prime Ministers came to office by winning an election.

How 1940’s 1950’s 1960’s 1970’s 1980/90’s Post 1997
General Election Attlee Churchill Wilson Heath Thatcher Blair
Between Election Eden & MacMillan Dougas Home Callaghan Major Brown

The table above doesn’t show Wilson’s second administration. Also Ashdown says that it was five who became Prime Ministers on the basis of the ability to command a majority in the House of Commons, rather than on the back of a general election, so I may have made a mistake. I used Wikipedia’s British General Elections page as my source. …