Monday, 18 February 2013


I’ll make this quick, because it’s pure speculation. A misconception many people have about the British system of cabinet government is that the Prime Minister holds all the power. In reality the only power that comes with the office is the power of patronage-it is the Prime Minister who makes all the ministerial appointments. MP’s and ministers are loyal to a Prime Minister because his favour is the only way they can secure political advancement, or because the Prime Minister can sack them if they prove disloyal.

This produces an interesting dynamic, because the power of the Prime Minister to command loyalty from his MP’s and ministers is diminished if those MP’s and ministers think that said Prime Minister will not be in charge for much longer. If, for example, it looks like the governing party is going to lose an upcoming general election, then the Prime Minister no longer credibly holds the fate of his underling’s political careers in his hands. Those underlings will be looking to gain position in or under the next leadership of the party. I am well aware that this assumes that many politicians are ruthless careerists. History would indicate that there is some truth to this.

With this in mind there was a fascinating snippet in the Independent on Sunday this week. Back in 2010, when the coalition was freshly elected and the Prime Minister had five years worth of appointments to make, Michael Gove was prevented from having his choice of special advisor (SpAd), namely Dominic Cummings, because Mr Cummings was felt to be something of a loose cannon by the leadership. Later on in the Parliament Mr Gove had no problem employing Mr Cummings, despite the fact that if the present briefing is to be believed, the leadership still hold a dim view of this SpAd. Why does Mr Gove feel able to act against the wishes of the leadership (not for the first time) now? One possible answer is that Mr Gove is no longer in awe of the Prime Minister because it looks increasingly likely that the Conservatives will not win the next election outright, and that if a new coalition is formed it will be between the Lib Dems and Labour*. If this is the case then Mr Gove’s next career move will not depend on the favour of David Cameron. Indeed, it could be to replace him.

This analysis comes with plenty of health warnings. Michael Gove has gone on record as saying he is unfit to be Prime Minister. All of the briefing I referred to could have come from Department of Education officials who are in the middle of an acrimonious dispute with Mr Gove and his SpAds. Still, these rumours are cropping up in quite a few places. This might be a story to watch.

Can you tell I’ve been watching House of Cards this week?

*I personally am not yet convinced Labour can pull this off, but it looks more likely than it did this time last year, so who knows?     

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