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Yes, Prime Minister: A spin-off

Popular with generations of political junkies, the BBC TV and radio series, 'Yes, Minister' and 'Yes, Prime Minister' is the inspiration for this take on a certain prime minister’s struggle with proportional representation.

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The author—who publishes this piece on condition of anonymity—expresses gratitude, and apologies, to Yes, Prime Minister.

Scene: It’s morning, and the prime minister is at his desk, reading The Times when a trusted adviser, Anonymous Bureaucrat, enters.

AB: Good morning, Prime Minister, how are we this morning?

PM: Fine, thank you, Anonymous Bureaucrat. What can I do for you?

AB: Oh, nothing, sir . . .

PM: Excellent, then, I shall catch-up on my reading . . .

AB: Well, there is one small matter . . .

PM: Yes, what is it? (With some annoyance, peaking over the corner of his paper)

AB: Well it is the small matter of electoral reform, Prime Minister.

PM: Small matter? (Emphatically puts down his paper). Reforming the electoral system stands to change everything! Small matter indeed.

AB: Well, that’s precisely the problem, Prime Minister . . .

PM: Problem?

AB: Yes, Prime Minister . . . it’s a question of whether we really want to change every single little thing . . .

PM: Well, of course we do. That’s the whole point. When seats in the House of Commons are in proportion to the number of votes each party receives, well, that will change everything.

AB: Precisely, Prime Minister, it could lead to virtually anyone getting elected . . .

PM: Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

AB: (With distaste) . . . But it will mean all sorts of minority views, special interests, and diverse perspectives to contend with . . .

PM: But don’t we believe in diversity?

AB: Yes, but diversity out there in the country, not in here where important decisions are being made!

PM: Really?

AB: Think of it Prime Minister, all kinds of radical extremists . . .

PM: Ah, the far right, good point, Anonymous Bureaucrat . . .

AB: No, Prime Minister, much worse—labour, environmentalists. . . and fringe groups . . .

PM: Such as . . . ?

AB: Well . . . women!

PM: Women? Hardly a fringe group. . . they outnumber men!

AB: That is exactly my concern, Prime Minister . . .

PM: It’s a scandal that they don’t occupy the majority of the seats in the House of Commons.

AB: But that would almost certainly change, Prime Minister.

PM: Excellent! (Penny drops) Oh, I see. But shouldn’t voters have the right to choose whomever they wish?

AB: Whomever they wish? Oh, Prime Minister (Chuckling) . . .

PM: Yes, isn’t that the essence of democracy?

AB: But surely it is the responsibility of a wise leader to protect the ordinary voter from making . . . poor choices, Prime Minister.

PM: Good choices, bad choices—the will of the people is all that matters. (Turning back to The Times).

AB: Yes, but it wouldn’t be practical, Prime Minister. Can you imagine . . .

PM: My goodness, Anonymous Bureaucrat. (Putting down his paper). It could be very refreshing. I daresay, it might shake things up a bit.

AB: Precisely, Prime Minister, it could be terribly disruptive . . . and I am sure you would agree that this is not the time for instability . . .

PM: Instability?

AB: Oh yes, Prime Minister! The country needs a strong leader with a firm grip on the wheel. It’s not time for experimentation . . .

PM: But surely reforming our electoral system would be the right thing to do! Would it not?

AB: Well it may be the right thing, Prime Minister, but it is the wrong time.

PM: But you do agree it is the right thing…

AB: Let’s just say it is the wrong right thing, right at this particular time.

PM: The wrong right thing?

AB: Right at this particular point in time, yes, Prime Minister.

PM: At what point in time do you imagine it might be the right right thing?

AB: at would be very difficult to say.

PM: Yes, I thought it might. But it was an election promise, Anonymous Bureaucrat.

AB: Yes, exactly, Prime Minister (gleefully), just an election promise . . .

PM: So we have to keep it!

AB: Oh no, not a promise made during an election!

PM: Really?

AB: Nohohoho (chortling), everybody knows election promises are made purely for the purpose of getting elected, which we did!

PM: But we promised that if we did get elected we would change the election rules, once and for all!

AB: Yes, and it worked beautifully, Prime Minister. But that’s all behind us now.

PM: We just move on . . . ?

AB: Precisely, Prime Minister.

PM: But won’t I be accused of breaking my promise?

AB: Those are very strong words, Prime Minister.

PM: My reputation is at stake, Anonymous Bureaucrat. Tell me, how would you explain that we have completely turned our backs on this commitment?

AB: Oh, very easily Prime Minister . . .

PM: Really.

AB: Yes, we simply tell them there is insufficient public consensus to enable us to move forward and that it would be irresponsible of us to make so profound a decision for a country so divided.

PM: Well of course there is no consensus; we’ve known that all along. It’s a complex issue, Anonymous Bureaucrat, and frankly, we’ve done nothing—nothing at all—to build a consensus.

AB: You did instruct your MPs to hold consultations across the country . . .

PM: But we knew that had no hope of building consensus, in fact quite the opposite . . .

AB: Which is why you created an all-party committee to make a recommendation to Parliament . . .

PM: Since when has an all-party committee come to a consensus on anything?

AB: Well it came to a consensus that there was no consensus, Prime Minister . . .

PM: We’ve made a real mess of this one, Anonymous Bureaucrat.

AB: I would agree with you there, sir. Perhaps it is best simply to turn the page . . .

PM: And give up!? Certainly not! I have a majority government. We ran on this issue and we won—that’s my national consensus!

AB: I see, Prime Minister. You seem very determined.

PM: I am, Anonymous Bureaucrat. is country clearly wanted leadership on this issue, and I intend to give it to them. Damn the torpedoes!

AB: Bravo, Sir, very courageous.

PM: Not at all. I am just doing what I was elec- . . . what do you mean courageous?

AB: Yes, sir, a very noble act of self-sacrifice. Shall I have the lawyers pull together some draft legislation for your review by, say, Thursday?

PM: Self-sacrifice? What are you talking about?

AB: Giving up the possibility of your party ever forming a majority government again—it’s nothing short of heroic.

PM: Giving up on ever forming a…ever?

AB: Yes, almost certainly. Very noble, Prime Minister.

PM: I must say, I hadn’t really thought of it quite in those terms, Anonymous Bureaucrat.

AB: Modest to a fault, Prime Minister. Even I can see that proportional representation would lead to numerous parties of diverse persuasions, not one of them likely to have a majority of seats—including your own—all jostling for power. An extraordinary mark of fearless leadership, sir.

PM: I see . . . but surely the people would continue to look on our party favourably and ensure our return in numbers sufficient to govern . . . we are the natural governing party, after all, aren’t we, Anonymous Bureaucrat?

AB: Only when there are just two or three viable contenders, Prime Minister. Proportional representation will open the floodgates and put an end to that once and for all, as you say!

PM: But we would form a coalition, with like-minded parties, to keep our hand in . . .

AB: Unfortunately, not everyone sees it quite that way, Prime Minister.

PM: They don’t? (With some alarm) Who doesn’t?

AB: In fact, just the other day . . .

PM: Yes . . . (on the edge of his seat)

AB: Well, it just happened to come up in conversation with a few people on the Party Leadership Review Committee . . .

PM: Yes . . . ? (Leaning in)

AB: And they seemed to see coalition-building as a dangerous compromise of this party’s long-held principles . . .

PM: Long-held principles?

AB: Yes, a kind of a Faustian Bargain, I believe was how they put it . . .

PM: The only long-held principle in this party is to hold onto power at all costs!

AB: Precisely, Prime Minister, which is why it is so very courageous of you to stick to your neck . . . I mean, to stick to your guns on this one, sir.

PM: Did you say Faustian Bargain?

AB: Well yes, that phrase was used by the chair of the Leadership Review Committee . . .

PM: The chair of the Leadership Review Committee . . . for heaven’s sake, Anonymous Bureaucrat!

AB: Will Thursday be soon enough, Prime Minister?

PM: Thursday?! Soon enough for what?!

AB: For your draft legislation, Prime Minister. I could try for Wednesday, if you wish, sir. Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead.

PM: Why the bloody hurry, Anonymous Bureaucrat?!

AB: Prime Minister?

PM: It is my considered view that we should . . . consider these details a little more . . .

AB: Considerably?

PM: Precisely. This is a matter of great historic significance, after all, and I refuse to be pushed!

AB: Of course not, sir.

PM: Remember, Anonymous Bureaucrat, we march to the beat of our own drum . . .

AB: Yes, Prime Minister.

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