The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister
Cambridge University Press, £19.99
Anthony Seldon’s book The Impossible Office? is a work of consolidated scholarship about our prime ministers, based on many sources, ranging across several centuries. It is compelling reading, but leaves seminal questions unanswered, particularly on the relationship of the office itself to democracy.
The book is published to mark the 300th anniversary of the office of the British prime minister, the first claimed to be Robert Walpole, although he did not recognise the title himself. Furthermore, there are serious historians who believe that Walpole was not the first prime minister. Henry Pelham, who was prime minister between 1743 and 1754, owed his power to the confidence of the House of Commons, whereas for the most part Walpole owed his own power to George II and Queen Caroline of Ansbach.
Both of these prime ministers, however, did rely heavily on bribing members of parliament. Only since 1902 has the combined office of prime minister and that of First Lord of the Treasury always been held by a member of the House of Commons and therefore, crucially, by virtue of democratic election, by the voters.
Indeed, the intrinsic power of an individual prime minister, as we have seen in recent years, has depended not only on the size of their majority but also on the extent to which the prime minister has gained and retained the confidence of the government’s own backbenchers. For example, the fundamental democratic question of “who governs?” turned on the issue of our relationship with the European Union.
As a particular example, the Conservative Party has had a dramatic history, in recent times, of backbench rebellion against incumbent prime ministers, particularly through the aegis of the 1922 Committee. A Conservative prime minister appoints a Conservative cabinet, but is ultimately dependent on his or her own backbenchers, who in their turn depend on democratic election by their constituency voters and the confidence of their own associations. David Cameron, then prime minister, tried to neutralise the 1922 Committee in June 2010 by inducing a vote of the parliamentary party as a whole to bring ministers appointed by him into the voting arrangements and frustrate rebellion by his own backbenchers on the European question. Churchill was urged to do the same during the Second World War, but wisely refused to do so.
Had Cameron been able to make a lawful change to the constitution of the Conservative Party in the way he proposed, which he was forced to accept he did not and had to abandon, it would have become possible for him to ram through policies and to avoid rebellions by his backbenchers. In the words of Churchill, who was himself challenged in his own seat by supporters of appeasement when he was a member of parliament: “Your first duty is to your country, your second is to your constituents, only in the third place is your duty to your party.”
Churchill understood that as an MP, you do not do what the whips tell you if you believe it is inconsistent with your duty to your country or constituents. The more fundamental the democratic principle in the national interest, the more reason why you would rebel if you disagreed with party policy and wanted to ensure this fundamental principle and national interest is achieved. Theresa May fell, Cameron failed and Major’s policy on Europe fractured because they did not take heed.
Seldon’s book clearly reflects a number of conscious and some unconscious attitudes, derived from the influence of his closest mentors and advisers, who are well known for their dislike of Brexit, as reflected in his observations, such as: “the noisy ERG… containing purist Brexiteers”. This misses the point, which is that particularly the Spartans, who were not all members of the ERG, were representing the views of their constituents and the British voters on the third withdrawal agreement vote, as proved by the result of the referendum itself and then its endorsement in the last general election.
This was not a question of “banging on about Europe”, it was about prime ministerial acceptance or rejection on the fundamental democratic question and sovereignty, which lay at the heart of our membership of the European Union, and which Boris Johnson understood as a matter of sovereignty in a way his predecessors failed to comprehend.
Our unique system of parliamentary government works precisely because the office of prime minister is dependent on the incumbent’s election as a member of parliament, and his having won the confidence of the voters as a whole in a general election, and that of his backbenchers as well.
To answer the question posed by Seldon’s title to the book: the impossible office? – the office of prime minister is not merely possible, but necessary, primarily because the prime minister, being also an elected representative and a member of parliament, has to engage and deliver the democratic will of the people whilst being accountable to parliament itself and being prime minister in Number Ten.
Despite my reservations, I otherwise strongly recommend this book because it brings together so much thought-provoking and scholarly information about those who have become prime minister over the best part of 300 years.
Sir Bill Cash has been an MP since 1984 and a parliamentarian under six prime ministers.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.