From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: The Prime Minister problem
When we transferred power from voters to parties by increasing the size of constituencies so that voters no longer knew the person they were voting for, we in effect gave far more power to the cabinet. We were able to neutralise that by increasing its size. You and I know that it is impossible for any committee of more than ten members to give proper consideration to problems, or reach sensible and considered decisions. Once we raised cabinet membership above twenty we removed the danger of its doing anything original or decisive. As you know, it is now in effect a group therapy session.
The downside is that the Prime Minister now has remarkable power. Our problem is to make sure he does not use it to make unwelcome decisions or take ill-advised actions. The danger period is after the first six months, when he has settled in and is starting to learn the job. Obviously we try to keep him too busy to interfere with our job of running the country efficiently; preparing for Prime Minister’s questions and cabinet meetings are useful, as are party committees and conferences, ceremonial events and receiving distinguished visitors. And we are fortunate that his first priority is not running the country but winning the next election, so that an agreeable amount of time can be consumed in sucking up to rich potential donors and influential journalists. Nevertheless these harmless occupations still leave him time to interfere with our work.
The answer is to encourage him to develop his international role. All Prime Ministers are obsessed with how they will appear in the history books, and this makes them desperate to play a leading part on the world stage. We can get him out of our hair for long periods by persuading him to attend top level meetings at the United Nations, the European Union, the Commonwealth, the WTO, the IMF and NATO, as well as less formal excursions to Brussels, Washington and Moscow. Throw in the occasional trips to Beijing, Tokyo and the Middle East and our problems are almost over. Best of all is a small war – these preoccupy Prime Ministers to the exclusion of almost everything else. Iraq and Afghanistan have done wonders for the orderly and efficient conduct of government at home, and if there is a danger of their ending we have Iran on standby.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 5 October 2010