Tony Blair needs his Cabinet as much as they need him

The sole circumstances under which Blair has truly prime ministerial power would last three minutes

IMAGINE BRITAIN under nuclear attack. Only one man - or woman - can authorise the Chief of Defence Staff to give the order for the retaliatory launch of Trident Cruise missiles: the Prime Minister. Nothing surprising here, except that, apart from hiring and firing his ministers, it is more or less the only executive action which a prime minister is entrusted by the constitution to carry out on his own. The sole circumstances under which he has truly prime ministerial power would have three minutes to last.

This graphic point is made by Professor Peter Hennessy to illustrate the formal limits of the prime minister's executive authority in the British system. Unlike the secretaries of state, who have a host of statutory powers, duties and discretions, he has none. Never mind that he has many fewer formal powers than Jacques Chirac or Boris Yeltsin or Bill Clinton; he cannot even issue a circular to local education authorities as David Blunkett can.

As Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, points out in this week's programme in the BBC Radio Four series Matrix of Power, an individual secretary of state's authority rests partly on the fact that his or her name, and not the prime minister's, is on the big Bills going through Parliament. On the face of it, of course, this seems a mere technical point.

If ever there was a time when a prime minister can order his ministers to do more or less what he wants them to, it is now. His popularity, his authority in his party, his media image of sheer indispensability all make him a frighteningly formidable adversary for a Cabinet dissident. His power may be informal; but that doesn't make it any less real.

At present the idea of loose, collegiate, Cabinet government a la John Major or Jim Callaghan could not seem more remote. There is precious little sign of the full-scale internal debate within the Cabinet which feature on the pages of the Crossman or the Barbara Castle diaries. Ministers across the political spectrum frequently attest to the degree of ideological unity in government.

Further, the recent reforms to the Cabinet office by Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, were widely seen as strengthening the grip of the centre on the departmental baronies - even to the extent that some officials have even suggested that they will help to usher in a more "Napoleonic" system of government. The "kitchen cabinet" of the unelected advisers to both the Prime Minister and to some extent the Chancellor of the Exchequer, seem more powerful than most junior or middle ranking Cabinet ministers.

A strong prime minister can indeed wield huge authority over his Cabinet colleagues, even on a policy issue in which he or she is facing strong opposition. The immediate trigger for Michael Heseltine's resignation from the Cabinet over Westland in 1986 was Margaret Thatcher's refusal to risk a debate on the issue in the full Cabinet after losing the argument in a Cabinet committee.

But Mr Heseltine says in the programme that he thinks she would probably have won if it had been debated by the full Cabinet. The subsequent experience of the poll tax suggests that he is right. Privately almost all the Cabinet had severe doubts about the wisdom of the Community Charge.

Yet no minister was prepared to support Nigel Lawson in his opposition to Margaret Thatcher over it. As Lawson notes in his memoirs, ministers are primarily interested in their own departmental battles: "When an issue arises where the prime minister of the day and the responsible minister are wholly at one,their colleagues - who have causes of their own over which they are seeking either prime ministerial support or resisting prime ministerial pressure - are disinclined to raise objections."

Professor Hennessy's point nevertheless goes to the heart of a peculiarity in the British system. The organic chemistry of a British Cabinet, even one as visibly dominated by its Prime Minister as this one is, is more subtly balanced than it looks.

First, as Lawson's remark implies, it is much more difficult for even strong prime ministers to get their way if the relevant departmental minister is opposed to the policy. Margaret Thatcher was unable to overcome the Energy Secretary Peter Walker's resistance to breaking up British Gas when it was privatised.

It is interesting to speculate over what would have happened had David Blunkett mounted all-out resistance, say, to the reappointment of Chris Woodhead as Chief Inspector of Schools. He might have used up a lot of credit in the prime ministerial bank. But would Tony Blair have been prepared to risk his resignation on the issue?

Second, all prime ministers are circumscribed by the independent power of the Chancellor, at least on matters, which directly affect the economy. A prime minister, for example, who allows a Chancellor to resign because he wanted to be too prudent is taking a huge gamble.

When Harold Macmillan described the resignation of Peter Thorneycroft in 1958 as a "little local diffculty" - in the days when prime ministers did their own spinning - he was in fact deflecting a grave threat to the government's economic credibility.

That's one reason why strong Chancellors tend to win their arguments over curbs on public spending - as John Major discovered in at least one Cabinet defeat over education spending at the hands of Kenneth Clarke, and as even Tony Blair has had to recognise on occasions over NHS funding.

Finally, while the right to sack and force resignations enjoyed by the prime minister is a hugely potent source of authority, there are limits to the extent that it can be wielded without collateral damage to his own office - as Margaret Thatcher discovered.

Oddly the correlation between the prime minister's strength of personality and the collegiate nature of Cabinet government is less inverse than you might think. As a peacetime Prime Minister, Churchill was actually a romantic about Cabinet between 1951 and 1955, bringing most issues to full meetings and allowing himself to be contained by them on occasions, for example on relations with the Soviet Union.

No prime minister, however powerful, can affiord to ignore his Cabinet permanently. He may not need them now but sooner or later he will. Indeed the more he consults them when he doesn't have to, the more they will show understanding when he can't. Tony Blair shows signs of recognising this. It is one of the reasons, no doubt, that the Prime Minister recently held an "away day" for the Cabinet at Chequers to discuss the government's strategy and policy in the months and years ahead - with the promise of more to come.

In the British system, Cabinet ministers remain, as Douglas Hurd calls them, the "big beasts of the jungle". Cabinet government may be in its dormant phase, as it seemed to be when it was written off before at times under Lloyd George, or Margaret Thatcher. But it will come back.

Donald Macintyre will present a programme on the Cabinet in the current BBC Radio Four series `The Matrix of Power' to be broadcast this Thursday at 8.30pm

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine