Book review: At Power’s Elbow

Rows about spin, concerns about the centralising of decision-making and over powerful aides. Not a new book about Downing Street today but rather a detailed new volume that shows these rows are as old as the post of prime minister itself.

Indeed, within the first chapter is the first account of ‘an increasingly sophisticated public-relations operation’ under prime minister Robert Walpole in the early 18th century – which included bribery to discourage negative articles or control of the post office to prevent them from being distributed.

The authors cite Thomas Gordon and Nicholas Paxton as Walpole’s key aides in this media management, arguing that they pioneered the media monitoring and rapid rebuttal techniques later attributed to Tony Blair as they managed contemporary allegations of financial wrongdoing about the then prime minister.

Academics Andrew Blick and George Jones have put together a thorough study of all those who have served, in the title of the book, At Power’s Elbow.

They have clearly approached the project with much care and attention, and it is fascinating as history, although it is weaker on recent administrations. As the appendix shows, the authors have invested a great deal of time and effort into speaking to former No 10 aides, although this list runs out of steam at the Callaghan years.

Indeed the jacket photo of David Cameron and Andy Coulson smacks more of a publisher’s desire to make the book ‘current’ but also represents the weakest part of the content which is just a few thumbnail sketches of those around the current prime minister.

The strongest parts of the book look at the ways in which the office has coped with the severest challenges as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill sought to get the machinery of government to work in the most challenging of times.

It is also noticeable that the authors cite the Harold Wilson and Tony Blair governments as the most transformative of the centre of government, as reforming Labour administrations will always find themselves having to fight against the conservative instincts of the permanent machinery of government.

As the book notes, when the role of prime minister started, the Treasury provided the core of the prime ministerial staff, and the letterbox on 10 Downing Street still says The First Lord of the Treasury. Over the following 300 years that relationship has had its ups and downs, as both sides have argued over the significance of that title.

Prime ministers have always had aides, some who have been a force for good, and some not, as Damian McBride’s recent book has shown. But fortunately this book avoids one of the current trends which is to say all civil servants are noble and all special advisers are a corruption, and makes clear that, for all the hype about the individuals working behind the scenes, decisions are actually taken by the elected politicians.

With Charles Falconer’s appointment as transition adviser to Ed Miliband, there are some useful historical lessons, but if you are after a handbook for what to do if you find yourself at power’s elbow, then I would recommend Jonathan Powell’s The New Machiavelli as a more practical guide.

But as a detailed study of the evolution of the office of prime minister and First Lord of the Treasury it is a useful reminder that, just as old episodes of Yes, Minister still seem topical today, so are the old arguments about a strong centre and the power of the premier in our governance.

This review was written for Progress magazine.