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Beware the White House makeover of Downing Street

Undated handout photo issued by ITV News of Downing Street's new White-House style media briefing room.

A recurring story in the press, which has yet to materialise, are the new scheduled daily press briefings from Downing Street. These will be hosted by Allegra Stratton who last year was appointed to the reimagined role of Downing Street Press Secretary. She isn’t a familiar face to many and will want to shake off the epithet of ‘Wife Of The Spectator’s Political Editor’ as swiftly as possible. This will likely be easy for her when she finally begins taking questions on behalf of the PM on TV.

The role of Downing Street Press Secretary has always been anonymous — not that we didn’t know who held the position, we did, but rather that when they gave statements, the source was ascribed to ‘the prime minister’s spokesman’ and the lobby briefings were held behind closed doors.

Fans of the West Wing will be looking forward to televised press briefings, but I doubt we will be seeing the same calibre of questioning from our hacks than from the fictional White House press corps. Since covid bound us all to our bed posts, we’ve had a dry run of these press conferences. The nature of a televised briefing is that each journalist asks the same question just in a slightly repackaged form. They all need their own soundbite, you can’t blame them. But it doesn’t provide good watching, nor the rigorous sort of scrutiny to which C. J. Cregg was subjected.

The televised briefings are just one of the ways this premiership is becoming more presidential in its character. In a recent defence review, a new White House style ‘situation room’ was announced, moving the centre of power that bit deeper into the heart of Number 10. Boris Johnson too has not been ashamed of making decisions ahead of Cabinet. Cabinet has become less of a decision-making engine, and more of an implementation machine. The decisions are made by Johnson’s inner ring of advisers. Never has this been truer than throughout the lockdown, when a closed clique of experts has made the bulk of the legislative decisions.

All these things go against the grain of the British constitution. The centre of power is not Downing Street, which is merely a living space and offices. The true centre of power ought to reside in Parliament. Cabinet government means exactly that — that the responsibilities of governing ought to lie with cabinet collectively. That’s why they call it ‘collective responsibility’. What these trends outlined above do is shift the centre of power away from Parliament, and move the decision making from Cabinet increasingly to the shoulders of one man.

Yes, we have a ‘prime’ minister, but the clue, as ever, is in the title. He is a minister, a first among equals. Boris Johnson is not the executive, his cabinet is. And yet, there is this persistent tugging at the constitutional strings, as the influence of cabinet ministers is gently drained away from them, and the executive is quietly but surely withdrawn from the legislative, namely Parliament.

The concern is that the Presidentialisation of the role of prime minister will do lasting damage to the constitution. The nature of the British constitution is that is is ever changing as precedents are set, and new conventions formed. It is in a constant state of evolution, often imperceptible, but present, nonetheless.

This shift towards Presidentialism is dangerous, not least at a time when more young people appear to be questioning our constitutional monarchy. We weaken the power of parliament at our peril, and ought to be instinctively wary of giving more power to fewer people. Downing Street is not the White House, and Boris Johnson is not a President. Those who value the British constitution as it currently exists ought not to welcome these changes.

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