Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Has Virtually Unlimited Power: The Trouble Is That He Doesn't Know How to Use It

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Has Virtually Unlimited Power: The Trouble Is That He Doesn't Know How to Use It

Article excerpt

The Blair administration is set upon running Britain without reference to the institutions and common practice of state: Parliament, the monarchy and the system of common law. This week saw a fresh manifestation of this novel, direct, centralised method of government with the eviction of the whips from their base in No. 12 Downing Street, the large, familiar, redbrick building from where the chief whip can wander easily through to No. 10. His or her ability to do so has long been an essential part of smooth government and a testament that Parliament mattered.

But the chief whip Hilary Armstrong and her colleagues are to be thrown out to make way for the army of special advisers and technocrats who are the characteristic figures of this Blair government. Nobody knows where Armstrong will go, and nobody cares. The chief whip until very recently possessed formidable power and mystique. But Hilary Armstrong is an administrative drudge, so unimportant that no one has yet bothered to warn her of her impending eviction, which will most likely take place during the summer recess that is expected to be called for the early date of 20 July.

Tony Blair has decided to throw out the chief whip because he needs the space. He is probably, at this moment, the most powerful peacetime prime minister Britain has ever had. His style of government is frequently called presidential. But that is absurd. Tony Blair possesses far more power - within his own limited domain than any US president. He has pretty well total freedom of action, and is restrained by none of the countervailing forces with which prime ministers normally have to cope Parliament, Cabinet, the opposition, etc.

The trouble is that he has not learnt how to exercise this power. The story of the first four years of the Blair administration was one of frustration. The Prime Minister pulled levers, and found that they did not respond. He issued commands, and discovered that they had no effect. He felt the same blind anger - so one of his allies told me - that overcame Hitler in his bunker when he attempted to mobilise non-existent divisions on the Eastern Front. Like Hitler, he vented his anger on commanders in the field. Well before last month's general election, Tony Blair had concluded that the civil service was to blame.

That is why Tony Blair has spent the last three weeks restructuring Whitehall. It is impossible to exaggerate how much all these new `delivery units', `forward strategy units' and sprawling new departments of state mean to the Prime Minister. For him they are the difference between success and failure. Tony Blair is trying to create a delineated command structure that will enable him to control, monitor and enforce his programme of thoroughgoing public-sector reforms.

These changes have to work if Blair's second term is not, like his first, to disappoint. But, from the outside at least, they look like a spectacular buggers' muddle. The Prime Minister has failed to grasp at least three fundamental problems. The first of these is the fact that, nominally at any rate, John Prescott is running the show. This is what the press release entitled `Delivering Effective Government' proclaimed on 8 June, the day after the election: `An office of the Deputy Prime Minister will be established in the Cabinet office. The Deputy Prime Minister will chair a number of key Cabinet committees. …

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