President Major embraces the great outdoors: The White House inspired Monday's lawn briefing at No 10, writes Stephen Ward

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JOHN MAJOR must have visions of a new presidential age. US presidents brief on the White House lawn, so why should he not speak on the lawn at Number 10?

This week's event with the lobby correspondents is one more sign of the conversion of British politics to what many have seen as presidential behaviour. And it was probably no coincidence that it came the same day as the live televised debate among the three Labour leadership contenders, and Norma Major's photocall on the set of Coronation Street.

Even though the lawns at the White House are not overlooked by builders on scaffolding who jeer at inappropriate moments, and undeterred by the fact that Clement Atlee used the garden as a graveyard for his Welsh Terrier bitch, Megan, and the recent death of a robin family there, Mr Major pushed the trend towards presidential leadership a notch further.

Politics has increasingly become a presidential contest between competing personalities. Margaret Thatcher strengthened the power of the prime minister from first among equals to first among minions. Neil Kinnock developed the concept of the presidential family, with his party political broadcasts with Glenys in 1992.

Michael Foley, professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University, author of The Rise of the British Presidency (Manchester University Press, 1993), has watched the trend accelerate, and believes there are constitutional implications. He said: 'For a whole string of reasons, leadership figures are stretching away from their organisational roots, a process often taking place in public.'

He believed the lawn event marked a real departure. 'You can always turn around and walk away from the front of the house. If you hold them on the lawn, you can't. If you look at the pictures, he's picking out the reporters whose questions he will answer. But it doesn't matter really what he says. The fact is that he's got it beautifully staged. It will make pictures.'

The Opposition had been threatening to present the electorate with three alternative leaders for the next six weeks. 'He came back very strongly.'

Professor Foley said the move towards a presidency even extends to the language Mr Major uses: 'He keeps insisting he has a personal mandate from the British people. He made a big thing of it after the election, and now it comes up regularly.'

He said the accepted wisdom among political scientists was that the leader made little difference to voting behaviour. 'But I think it's difficult to unravel the politics from the leadership, when the electorate are being told by the leaders that they are connected.'

But he had a warning for Mr Major, that focusing power on the leader has a downside. 'There's now an enormous fascination with alternative leaders,' he said. 'No sooner has a leader come in than there's a fascination with an alternative.'