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The Independent Online
TRICKY THINGS, lectures, even on as well worn a scholarly theme as the relative powers of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as I have rediscovered in recent weeks. Let me explain. Last autumn I undertook one of my regular overflights of Whitehall to update my photo-reconnaissance on the Blair style of government. This time it was for the Public Management Foundation, where I unveiled my snapshots in mid-October, and the Foundation published the results as The Blair Centre last month.

It was a passing remark of mine which caused the fuss when I reported that in the spring of 1998, Lady Thatcher had "found herself at a banquet in Buckingham Palace separated from the Queen and Blair only by a vast bowl of flowers". "Worried about that young man," she confided to her neighbour, a former colleague. "He's getting awfully bossy," said the warrior queen (as opposed to the real one) without a trace of self-irony. The ex-Conservative minister nearly fell off his chair.'

The day before the pamphlet appeared, The Sunday Times ran a "Thatcher calls Blair `bossy' " story on its front page after its political editor had found confirmation of my little aside from "those who remain close to the former prime minister" that indeed "she is concerned about Blair's bossiness".

The unfortunate Mr Blair had to field questions about this on the Good Morning With Richard and Judy television show the following morning and on Radio 2's The Jimmy Young Show the following week. Mr Blair is sensitive about such matters and has been from the start of his premiership. As a close insider put it to me last autumn: "He is interested in how history will regard him as a Prime Minister but he doesn't approach it in an intellectual way..."

Those who perhaps do approach it in all intellectual way have had a good deal to feed off in recent weeks in terms of the competing pulls of collective and prime ministerial government. Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former Cabinet Secretary, mapped the changes in the Cabinet system from Attlee to Blair in his Attlee Foundation Lecture at the Mansion House and concluded that "by the 1990s, it could be said that, from being an executive body (at least in a formal sense) in Attlee's time, Cabinet had reverted to something close to what it was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries - a meeting of political colleagues at which the issues of the moment were informally reported or discussed".

That other veteran observer of central government, Tony Benn, was much less sanguine than Robin Butler when he spoke to my students in the House of Commons at the end of January. He declared baldly that "We have shifted from a Parliamentary system to a presidential one because the British constitution allows that to happen because the powers of the Crown are at the disposal of the Prime Minister".

Mindful of his drawing-up of a huge Government of Britain Bill a few years ago, I suggested to Mr Benn that he might like now to prepare a Prime Minister of Great Britain Bill.

He has, and copies of his Modernisation of the Premiership Bill (which requires that assent of the House of Commons be given before such crown powers can be exercised) have arrived for me and my students. With luck he will be able to place it before the Commons under the 10-minute rule or, even better, as a Private Member's Bill should he win a place in the ballot.

Whatever happens, the Benn Bill will have a place in the next lecture I deliver on the Blair style once time has allowed me to get my old battered reconnaissance aircraft once more into the skies above Whitehall. The story will remain airborne for years to come as Mr Blair has given the old Cabinet government debate more lift than at any time since the late Thatcher years.

The writer is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. `The Blair Centre: a question of command and control?' is available from the Public Management Foundation, 165 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8UE, for pounds 7.50

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