The prime minister of the “just about managing” can no longer manage herselfby Tom Clark / January 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
Under the British constitution, remarkably few powers are formally entrusted to the prime minister. With the cloak of the royal prerogative, they could once start wars, but recent practice has been to consult parliament. They used to be able to call elections on a whim, but under fixed-term legislation they must now ask for MPs’ say so. But then British PMs never really needed any power, but one: the right to hire and fire the Queen’s ministers.
In America, the constitution states all “executive power shall be vested in a President.” Under our cabinet government, by contrast, nearly all legal authority sits with the individual secretaries of state. No matter. Election-winning premiers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have, by virtue of their ability to pick and choose those who sit around the top table with them, been able to develop into elective dictators. In their prime, their colleagues took it as read that if they took serious issue with the boss on any first-order question, then they’d be out on their ear. Which is, of course, what happened to Nigel Lawson over the Exchange-Rate Mechanism, and Robin Cook over Iraq. Thus there was, in the end, almost never any arguing with the boss.
After squandering her majority in a voluntary election, the PM has—naturally—been keen to prove to the country and her colleagues that she really does remain in charge. It is natural, too, that she should look to the one, hard power in her command to demonstrate this. Hence the whispers, ever since the Autumn, that she was planning to rebuild and refresh her team. She knew that it wouldn’t be easy, and that the moment must be chosen with care. So she basked in her moment of triumph in getting the Brexit talks to progress in December, enjoyed her Christmas break, and then gave the signal on Andrew Marr’s sofa on Sunday morning, where she looked genuinely refreshed.
She also looked, for the first time in a while, as if she believed herself to be in command of events. The weekend papers were told that everything was set, with the plans all mapped out “on a whiteboard in the No 10 study.” Whereas…