Our British democracy is a presidential system - minus the President

Cameron is only the latest Prime Minister to be in intense trouble, but this new pressure on a single individual makes being presidential almost impossible

Share

The intense frenzy that has engulfed David Cameron in recent days is nothing new. Most of the elements would be familiar to all recent Prime Ministers. Read the vivid diaries of Alastair Campbell and they take you back to the crazy days when Tony Blair seemed to leap from one nerve-shredding crisis to the next, the media speculating whether Blair would survive the week. Go back to the Prime Minister before Blair and recall that John Major was on the edge of a cliff for most of the time. Go further back and even the deified Margaret Thatcher lurched from one seemingly terminal emergency to another for much of her reign. Move on from Blair, and Gordon Brown was in a permanent crisis. In No 10, frenzy is the norm.

There are specific and substantial reasons for this in each case. The various Prime Ministers had immense flaws and were leading in an unavoidably complex context. In the case of Cameron he swims against the historic tide, half knows this is the case and sometimes seeks to move with the waves, only to be drawn rightwards by instinct and his party. This is the fundamental reason why he is the latest Prime Minister to be in intense trouble.

But he is a talented politician and an intelligent student of politics. His tutor at Oxford, Vernon Bogdanor, although no fan of Cameron’s policies, still regards the Prime Minister as too easily underestimated. Listeners of this morning’s Today programme were reminded that Cameron is a goodish interviewee, not in Blair’s league as a communicator, but calm, good-humoured and delivering answers with at least an appearance of clarity. Indeed, his public intervention yesterday had a familiar ring. In the Blair era, a frenzy would erupt about something or other, there would be days of speculation over Blair’s fate, he would then give a calm interview or hold his monthly press conference, and the journalists would declare that he was in command and authoritative. There would be a pause until the next crisis.

Again, I stress that in Cameron’s case there is good cause for the headlines of recent days. Politics is always extraordinary, but it is going through one of its more tumultuous sequences, with a peacetime coalition, the rise of Ukip, a referendum in Scotland and a daunting economic crisis. As a Prime Minister, Cameron must keep Nick Clegg on board (relatively easy on most issues except the big one of Europe), address the concerns of his party  (not easy), and keep more than one eye on Ukip (nightmarish). He is doomed to eternal fragility and to perform contortions that would test the most lissom gymnast.

The modern media heightens the sense of crisis for Prime Ministers. While listening to Cameron on Today, I kept an eye on Twitter at the same time. You can bet his senior aides would have been doing the same. Within seconds of leaving the studio ,Cameron would have known the verdict of a thousand commentators. He probably checked himself. A few years ago, a Prime Minister rarely appeared on Today and if he or she did the verdicts would arrive in the following day’s newspapers, by which time most people will have forgotten the original interview. Now the political temperature is at boiling point around the clock.

The media culture both reflects and fuels our presidential culture. While Prime Ministers define and shape our politics, most other politicians are unknown. This focus on a single individual makes the demands on modern Prime Ministers almost impossible. They must seem presidential at all times, wholly in command, even though they lead parties that are powerful and on which they depend for support. As a near President, the Prime Minister must be in control of every domestic policy. The Prime Minister is also the main voice in foreign affairs. At all times, he or she is leader of a party and an army of MPs. In addition, Prime Ministers must convey messages through the never-ending media or respond to various frenzies.

Consider the madness of Cameron’s past few days in Washington for talks with President Obama while seeking to deal with an insurrection over Europe that he described yesterday as “disagreeing over something we agree with”. Meanwhile, he had to address the eruption of “loongate” in which a member of his entourage was accused of being disparaging to activists, while deciding on the parliamentary tactics to see off his rebels in the gay-marriage vote. Cameron has many faults but the accusation often made against him, that he is lazy, is comically misplaced.

Goodness knows what else was going on behind the scenes, but you can be guaranteed that Cameron would be taking many other decisions. Blair once told me that each day he faced decisions that came down to the following question: Should I cut my throat or slit my wrist? Any wrong call in government and the Prime Minister must answer. Not surprisingly, they get burnt out, make mistakes, despair, go mad. I am told that Cameron has wondered aloud to friends at times whether it is worth carrying on, before deciding unsurprisingly that it is. He looks much fresher than some of his predecessors did.

For all the specific reasons that explain the destabilising crises that unnerve Prime Ministers, there is one constant factor. No 10 is under-powered. This townhouse, with its tiny units of advisers and officials, cannot cope with the modern demands of leadership. When the then Prime Minister of France Lionel Jospin visited London, he was introduced to Blair’s economic adviser. Jospin asked Blair where the rest of the adviser’s department was. He was told that he had only one economic adviser. Jospin thought he was joking.

 There needs to be a big, well-resourced highly political Prime Ministerial department to reflect the responsibilities of a modern Prime Minister. Precisely because of all the weekly crises, Prime Ministers quickly become too weak to establish a proper department, fearful they will look too arrogant. The move can be made only at the beginning, when Prime Ministerial popularity is fleetingly high. The next Prime Minister should announce his plans to appoint political advisers, top officials, and party-based people in a big new department on Day One – before the crises erupt.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultants For Multiple UK Offices

£18000 - £25000 per annum + DOE, OTE £40000: SThree: LONDON - BRISTOL - DUBLIN...

Embedded Software Engineer - Process Coordinator

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare, Bonus, Holiday : Progressive ...

Subject Leader of ICT & Computing

£21588 - £36756 per annum + negotiable: Randstad Education Chelmsford: ICT/Com...

C# Senior Web developer (C#, VBA, Strong Education,C++, JAVA)

£40000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Senio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Brazil fans are devastated while watching the first half on Copacabana Beach during the 2014 FIFA World Cup semi-final match between Brazil and Germany on July 8, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The winner advances to the final at the famed Maracana stadium.  

The response to Brazil's defeat has been a surreal exploration of loss and tragedy

Timothy Kennett
The Daily Prophet newspaper - closer to fact than fiction?  

The response to the new Harry Potter story by the muggle media is fantastically ironic

Anna Leszkiewicz
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil