Parliament and Government are different things. You might think that obvious, but it’s amazing how many people confuse the two. Government does things, the House of Commons gives them the power to do so, and then we and the House of Lords scrutinise what they do. The Judiciary meanwhile are fiercely independent of both, and the Monarchy provides the invisible glue that holds the whole thing together. That is the great British Constitution in a nutshell. It’s the product of 1000 years of evolution; and it’s the best in the world.
A group of Ministers run each Department of State, with civil servants doing their bidding but at the same time constraining their political overlords. ”That would be very courageous of you, Minister; perhaps even unwise”, as ‘Yes Minister’ hath it. Secretaries of State have collective responsibility within the Cabinet; they empower the PM, but they also constrain what he can do.
That entire delicate infrastructure of checks and balances makes the British political system the least corruptible in the world. No-one has ever offered me a bribe. But if they did they would be wasting their money since (unlike members of the US House of Representatives), I have absolutely no powers of any kind. Moreover, no individual minister can do anything without taking all of their colleagues, and indeed the thousands of civil servants in their department with them.
That’s why personality politics sits so uneasily with the British system. We all ‘love’ or ‘hate’ Boris, or Priti Patel, or Dominic Raab or Rishi Sunak. That’s the soap opera part of modern media-run British politics. Who’s up, who’s down? What did Boris have for Breakfast? Did you like Carrie’s (rented) wedding dress? These things are fun, but they are the flimflam of government and politics.
As it happens, I can tell you what Boris had for breakfast this morning, since I shared it with him – a very good bacon butty and black coffee under a marquee affair in the No 10 Rose Garden. It was a privilege to be one of six or so backbenchers invited in for breakfast and to let the PM have our views on how things are right now - and he got plenty of that. Chesham and Amersham, levelling up, HS2, housing and planning, Covid and lifting the remaining constraints; overseas travel and putting Mrs Merkel back in her box; UEFA officials swanning through the Covid restrictions. How refreshing it was to have the ear of the PM for an hour or so.
But then again, because of the balance of powers, there is in fact precious little he could actually do about most of the matters we raised with him. He can influence, of course; he can seek to persuade his colleagues to do something; he can explain what they are doing in the media. But he is only Primus Inter Pares - first amongst equals.
Just to be a bit soap opera for a moment, I happen to be a great fan of the PM. He has his faults - which amongst us does not? “He who is without sin should cast the first stone…”But he gets things done; he speaks in a very real way for ordinary people who may feel remote from the M-25 liberal elite who normally run Britain. That, I think, is why the Tories did so well in the Hartlepool by-election (and maybe Batley and Spen shortly as well); but did so badly in Chesham and Amersham. Boris is truly an icon amongst so many people who can see beyond some of his external failures to the strength which lies behind.
We don’t need a President in this country with executive powers; we need a non-Executive PM who can pull the great machine together and produce a country which is overall best for all of the people in it. I believe that Boris does indeed have those indefinable characteristics which make that possible.