UK politics Labour government: diarchy – monarchy – oligarchy

10 June 2009

The outlook for the Labour party and the prime minister is bleak. The prime minister has survived, but at some cost. Looking back at the Labour government so far, it’s possible (very flippantly) to see 3 distinctive stages: diarchy – monarchy – oligarchy.

Diarchy was the period when Mr Blair was the prime minister and Mr Brown the Chancellor. Mr Blair’s prime ministerial powers were strong but not absolute, and he was not able, even if he had wanted, to remove Mr Brown from the Treasury. As the Chancellor, Mr Brown exerted huge amount of influence and power: after all, he was in control of the money. While there were other ‘big beasts’ in the cabinet, Mr Blair and Mr Brown were the joint rulers, joint faces of the government.

When Mr Blair departed from his office, Mr Brown became a monarch, perhaps an absolute one. He combined his continuing control over the Treasury with the newly-acquired powers of the prime minister. His premiership started well, but then things started to go belly-up: there was the ‘election that never was’ and then the economic crisis. Even if he reacted, and he has always been good at reacting to (economic) events, he has been (rightly) blamed as the architect who created the conditions for such a crisis. Also, he may be effective in reacting to events when he chooses to do so, there was a void, vacuousness, in his policies: it never seemed entirely clear what his policies were and what he stood for.

With his popularity suffering and surrounded by ineffective ministers (court jesters), Mr Brown turned to a former friend and enemy (frenemy?), the exiled Lord Mandelson, and made him a favourite. Things started to calm down. Yet this was deceptive, and when the expenses scandal came to light, he was again seen as distant and ineffective. The mighty monarch was jeered and the subjects revolted.

To soothe the anger of his rebellious subjects, Mr Brown thought of a great reshuffle of his cabinet, however some of his ministers would not be moved. He had wanted Mr Balls to become the Chancellor, but he failed. Some cabinet ministers refused to join the new cabinet, and others joined the rebellion.

It was a reshuffle of a weakened prime minister, not an august display and majestic awe of prime ministerial powers. Now the cabinet ministers are powerful. The prime minister is vulnerable if any cabinet minister were to join the simmering revolt. Lose a cabinet minister or two, so he loses his office. He has been humbled, he has promised to listen, show more humility. The cabinet ministers are warlords with their fiefdoms, each protecting the department he or she is entrusted with. In other words, the cabinet is now an oligarchy, with the prime minister, a primus inter pares.

What will now follow? Democracy? Anarchy?