The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

The West Wing of 10 Downing Street

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 30, 2009 @ 01:11

The late (and legendary) John Spencer as Leo McGarry from The West Wing

The late (and legendary) John Spencer as Leo McGarry from The West Wing

After reading this post on Political Betting I began to wonder how many people in David Cameron’s inner circle are fans of the West Wing. Or perhaps even Cameron himself enjoys a little dabble with Martin Sheen, et al.

The rumours are abound after Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home lit the blue touch paper suggesting there might be some sort of other role for George Osborne. Could it be more akin to a Rahm Emanuel?

Every leader has to have their go-to man. Their fixer. Someone they trust implicitly because they know they have no leadership ambitions. It worked perfectly for Blair and John Prescott, because it was obvious Prescott was doing his last big job ever in politics. He was charismatic, a formidable opponent, a bit of a bully. Prescott did a job for Blair in keeping the party united, and was rewarded handsomely. Can you think of any other politician that might have got away with punching a member of the public in the face (no matter how much they deserved it)? Neither can I.

The problem with Blair and Prescott was that in order to maintain a ludicrous façade of Cabinet government, Prescott was given various ministries and Secretary of State roles, from which he unleashed a terrible wave of incompetence. Transport was his first failure. Then planning, local government, et al. Rather than just admit that he needed to have someone in the Cabinet who had no Cabinet responsibilities, and thereby admit to the growing presidentialisation of the office, Blair went out of his way to give Prescott something to do, pretending that there was a Cabinet “of equals”.

Personally, I’m done with the pretence that we have Cabinet government in this country. Cabinet government has been dead since Thatcher. We have a combination of a presidential Prime Minister (which is actually worse than a US President, since a US president has checks and balances) and a Whitehall bureaucracy that looks after itself and preserves the status quo very effectively.

Everything about our political culture revolves around a presidential idolisation of the party leadership. We vote in elections on the pretext of a local MP, but in most people’s mind is who they’d like to see as Prime Minister. The party leaders are increasingly the focus of all media, regardless of topic. Brown regularly makes statements in the Commons which could easily have been made by the relevant Secretary of State, which in turn gives Cameron the chance to reply. The party leaders also hold regular press conferences; Cameron even goes so far as to holding his in front of a “Rose Garden” backdrop.

In such presidential systems, there is inevitably one figure that fills the chief of staff role. If Osborne is destined to be Cameron’s Chief of Staff, then it would open up a very new and somewhat exciting page in British politics. At last we’ll have a tacit admission that the Cabinet is dead, and that there is a hierarchy of ministers – something that is essential to deal with the pressures of modern politics and media operations. At last we’ll have the most senior member of staff free of all other ministerial duties, allowing them to focus solely on knocking together the necessary heads in order to deliver the government programme; or, indeed, work in the opposite direction by keeping the leader in touch with party opinion.

Perhaps if Gordon Brown had a proper Chief of Staff he would have someone honest enough to tell him straight: that he has no chance, and that all around the Labour Party is in need of a clean-break, not another relaunch.

In other words, a proper Chief of Staff can do the arm-twisting and the sweet-talking, and be the eyes and ears on the ground, leaving the so-called Prime Minister free to focus completely on the broad picture. Meanwhile, you don’t get a ministerial post neglected or abused for the sake of ego – much as Ed Balls does with the Children, Schools and Families brief.

But most importantly of all, it would be the beginnings of a long, steady process that might, just might, see us get a system which has better ways and a definite framework for restraining the unfettered power of the executive in the British system.

That would cheer all of us liberals up.


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