Does Whitehall still say Yes, Prime Minister?

 

Who says that life does not imitate art?

Yes Prime Minister cast

Last week MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee tore a strip off Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood for his somewhat limited investigation into the Andrew Mitchell plebgate allegations. At the weekend the prime minister's former policy guru Steve Hilton described how Downing Street was often kept out of the loop by "paper-shuffling" civil servants. "The bureaucracy masters the politicians," he said.

On Monday David Cameron told the Today programme that there were "elements of truth" in Yes, Prime Minister's description of the relationship between minister and official. And this week ministers used the good offices of The Times to declare war on the civil service, dismissing Whitehall as "outdated" and "unfit for purpose".

So it is with exquisite timing that Yes, Prime Minister returns to our screens this week after an absence of 24 years. There is a new cast and a new contemporary scenario.

But the writers, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn - along with the music, cartoons and essential drama - remain the same. Jim Hacker is prime minister of a coalition government with a small majority. He is caught up in a eurozone crisis and a summit that has failed to find a solution. He is locked in constant battle with his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, who is trying to trick him into accepting a dodgy loan from a foreign nation. Hacker's solitary ally is the head of his policy unit, Claire Sutton.

The lines are as classy as ever. Sir Humphrey says: "Democracy should not be about executing the will of the people but the process whereby we secure the consent of the people to the policies of those qualified to decide on their behalf." Or how about: "Dealing with Europe is not about achieving success. It is about concealing failure." At one point, Bernard Woolley, Hacker's principal private secretary, warns the prime minister in Latin to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. To which a puzzled Hacker replies: "The Greeks can't afford gifts."

Some of the jokes are a touch familiar, such as the officials' attempts to keep documents from the prime minister by hiding them at the bottom of his red box. There are the party piece monologues from Sir Humphrey when he tries to explain something to the PM with increasingly complicated language. And there is perhaps too much sitting around talking and not enough plot to keep the drama going.

So much for the theatre criticism. Is it based on truth? Is it a reflection of the real relationship between ministers and civil servants, exaggerated for humour and effect? Well perhaps, on occasion. Sometimes officials do end up in conflict with their political masters but that conflict is rarely as overt as Yes, Prime Minister would have it.

The art of the official is to change the ministerial mind without the ministerial mind knowing it is being changed. So the reality is probably more mundane.

Some ministers and officials get on and work well together in mutual respect. Where ministers do complain about their civil servants, it tends to be more about their incompetence and inefficiency rather than their opposition to any policy. And where officials complain about their ministers, it tends to be more about their political weakness and inability to defend their department rather than their inept policy ideas.

So Whitehall and Westminster will recognise some truth in the new series of Yes, Prime Minister but it is still more comedy than documentary.

 
James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 75.

    I understand this programme is being shown on a channel called 'Gold', so I want be seeing it - I take it you have to be a Murdoch customer to see it - serves you right!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 74.

    73 beammeup

    There are 7699 legionnaires, ncos and officers. If you're interested and like some action.

    Sir Humphrey will reluctantly arrange C17 transport for them at the behest of the PM, who is cosying up to the French President in the vain hope of France returning the favour by lending the UK their aircraft carrier for a secret mission in the Global South next to Antartica....

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 73.

    Is there still a French Foreign Legion operating today? Enquiring minds would like to know...sorry nothing is represented on this subject.

    Keeping on subject...everyone loved Nigel Hawthorne....there was a bit of his character in all of us.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 72.

    Why not just repeat the programs from the past...they still represent the feelings of us today.

    BTW - is there anything 'really' important to comment on or ask questions of...eg. Mali what are we to expect or what does this entail?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 71.

    Think they would have done better to come up with new characters rather than expecting new actors to become Sir Humphrey and Jim Hackett.

    And of course leave out canned laughter. As soon as I hear that, the jokes die.

 

Comments 5 of 75

 

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