It is remarkable that our current Prime Minister is lovingly known as Boris or ‘BoJo’ in households across the UK and the world. We were already on a first name basis even before he was given the keys to number 10. It’s hard to think of any Prime Minister known in such colloquial terms. We’ve had Maggie and ‘Supermac’ permeate into the public discourse (although often belatedly as a feature of their legacy), but we wouldn’t so easily understand who Gordon, Theresa or John were in political commentary.
It’s an example of an excellent public relations campaign which turned an old Etonian politician into a friend, a guy we see on the telly, that bloke with the funny hair who got Brexit done. But recent polling shows Boris is not the favourite among Conservative Party members. Instead, they favour Rishi Sunak and other Cabinet members like Liz Truss. The Prime Minister is now the fifth-most unpopular cabinet minister among the Tory grassroots. Is the cuddly image of bumbling Boris failing? Are people fed-up of personality led politics?
Prime Ministers are no longer Primus Inter Pares, a first among equals of a cabinet of ministers. The office has become presidential, with style and charisma on the ballot sheet. It arguably started with Mrs Thatcher and was solidified by Blair. Though, theoretically, we have a cabinet-based system of government, students of politics will know this is no longer the case. Once, the Foreign Secretary dealt with issues of foreign affairs, but now we look to the prime minister for reactions to world events. We have our own version of Airforce One, and leaders debates during a general election.
The textbook theory is outdated. As party leaders pitch their character to the public, we almost feel as though we are voting for a leader, not a Parliament. It isn’t too dissimilar to Americans choosing between Trump or Biden.
All this seems rather odd when we consider we do not vote for a prime minister, we vote for an MP. The party with the largest number of members of the House of Commons is eligible to form a government on the Queen’s invitation. The leader of the largest party who can command the Commons is therefore prime minister.
But the cult of personality we have seen emerge, especially during the Johnson administration, is dangerous for those who value the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and accountability.
When elections are fought in a presidential style, with the public voting for a prime minister rather than a local representative, some MPs may neglect their parliamentary duties. Newly elected members may feel they owe loyalty to their leader over their constituents, believing that they have won a seat on the back of his or her coattails. This has over time led to increased partisanship and a lapse in scrutiny, allowing Downing Street to rise to the detriment of the Commons.
Although his premiership has been characterised by U-turns and crises, albeit with some resounding successes, none of these blunders have stuck to his record. Government cronyism, evading lockdown rules, the flat refurbishment scandal and Dominic Cummings’ personal assault on him either no longer matter or have been batted away. They would have been fatal to other prime ministers. Although there is no science to this assumption, this may be because the public see him as a character, not a politician.
The new Downing Street press briefing room, a rip-off from the White House, could see major policy announcements made in the seclusion of Number 10, not at the despatch box. Sir Lindsey Hoyle rightly warned of the detrimental effects this could have to our Parliamentary democracy. Recently, the Health Secretary side-stepped Parliament to declare NHS staff would receive a pay rise on social media and a raft of Covid announcements have been made outside of the hallowed Common’s chamber.
It is impossible to tell from the results of the poll on Tory cabinet members popularity if people have had enough of domineering styles. It is more likely that they want to switch one personality for another. But allowing government to be characterised by one person is misleading to the public and adds confusion to an already complex constitutional settlement.
In the past, Prime Ministers could either act as ‘chief executives’ leading the government with a more personal touch. Or they could act as a ‘chairman’ with a consensual approach to allow cabinet to run the country collectively. Many would admit, in times of crisis, we need leaders not yes people. But if a UK president is going to become the norm, safeguards must be established to ensure they remain answerable to the people through Parlaiment.