White House Lessons for Downing Street

By Honan, Bradley H. B. | Contemporary Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

White House Lessons for Downing Street


Honan, Bradley H. B., Contemporary Review


Dr. Jack Cunningham, the government's new official 'Cabinet Enforcer' has the first chance in a generation to redefine and rework the way that Downing Street and Whitehall present and implement the government's legislative programme. Dr. Cunningham's surprise appointment, in the summer reshuffle, is the first attempt by the Blair administration to put a minister with Cabinet rank in charge of overall coordination between the ever bickering Whitehall departments.

What started out as perhaps a reaction and a need for the Blairites to counterbalance the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has set up his own oversight body in the Treasury, can now be turned into a revolutionary reworking of the way that the government operates.

Jack Cunningham's new position has been the subject of much press speculation over the past few months, when most observers expected the job to go to Mr. Blair's chief strategist and trouble shooter, the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, MP. However, Mr. Mandelson's turbulent relationship with the Chancellor, as well as his wish to have a traditional post ended up with him being sent to Trade and Industry. Dr. Cunningham had been Secretary of State for Agriculture before his new appointment with the title Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

However, despite all the press attention, what is known about this new 'enforcer' job is vague. From what has been reported in the press Dr. Cunningham will make the rounds on the TV talk shows, plan the government's 'spin doctoring', and oversee long-range planning. From that one assumes that the Cabinet Enforcer, besides carrying out Mr. Blair's wishes in Whitehall, will attempt to get the government to speak with one voice. Why is this necessary, and what, if anything, can Dr. Cunningham do about it?

In the public's eye, the most powerful political figure in any country is the one who bears the responsibility for making sure that the government works. The public believes that government 'works' when it speaks with one voice and is able to control the agenda. While this figure will be held responsible at election time if the government 'hasn't worked', it is rarely ever this same figure who is an expert in the nuts and bolts of governing.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has the responsibility of keeping the team of government ministers working together. However, the reality is that the task is far too burdensome for one man, let alone one who has so many other demands on his time to be able to accomplish this. Therefore, in the recent reshuffle, Mr. Blair appointed somebody he and his colleagues trusted, to work the levers of government.

Any democratic government will stay popular as long as it is able to control the agenda. Controlling the agenda is not just a PR strategy, but a component of successful policy-making. Governments fall when they are no longer able to control the public debate and what is reported in the press.

However, when a new government first comes into office, it hardly ever imagines that there will be as many obstacles to controlling the agenda as there are. Scandals, unforeseen events, and disunity among senior members are three such examples of the ways that governments are plagued and often derailed. An essential component therefore of any successful government is a means by which all the moving and interconnecting pieces of government are able to be co-ordinated. Therefore the most important job for the new Cabinet Enforcer is to focus the media on the government's themes and agenda.

As Jack Cunningham ponders how he will master what seems to be a very difficult and complicated brief, he should look at his equivalent in Washington DC, for some ideas he could perhaps put to use. No doubt, Dr. Cunningham would, if nothing else, score points from the many New Labourites, who try and emulate the exchange of ideas occurring between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. …

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