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this week ministers used the good offices of The Times to declare war on the civil service, dismissing Whitehall as "outdated" and "unfit for purpose".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

    Comment number 55.

    37 con pt 2.
    Maybe Tory governments create better creative conditions for certain satirical-type comedy than do Labour ones. The Thick of It is an exception but lampooning Alistair Campbell types was not a difficult one to envisage and is a rare example of a comedy going across a change in government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    37.ichabod - "......created to lampoon Tory governments.
    But when it comes to lampooning Labour, then the BBC has a very different story. One of omission and forgetfulness. Sometimes bias is revealed in what you don't do!..."

    Indeed, like the fact you do not mention who was in power when each of those shows ran......political satire shows mostly lampoon whoever is in power at the time.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Britain is in a participation crisis in politics, people are finding themselves less and less involved in direct politics, E.G. voting, the turnout for the commissioner elections were, needless to say, appauling, however, at the same time, this may be because the people who are up for election are not representive of their area.

    This seems more like a doumentary if i am honest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    No need for return, we already have a laughing stock of a Dog of a govt in office.
    Just let the Tories and Literal Doormats make regular appearances on Radio / TV, and Press and if it wasn't sad at what this extreme right wing govt is doing to hurt the Country, we are left open mouthed at their incompetence, 37 U-turns in only 32 months speak for themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The Thick of it finished last year, sadly. I would say also that the most likeable character in the last series was actually a Tory played by Roger Allam. That is just my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    37 contin.
    My original comment draft used the word 'intelligensia' instead of BBC to include eg Spitting Image. It seems to me that Comedians given air time tend to be left wing. - I didnt even mention Jeremy Hardy on the News Quiz. Know any unashamed right-of-centre comedians on the BBC? Do they exist? Or does the BBC choose not to broadcast them?
    Really enjoy(ed) all the mentioned shows BTW.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    44. laughingdevil
    "So neutral to the tory is leftist, and to the left it's pro-tory. The more flak they get from all sides the more neutral they are likely to be!"
    Does that make them Liberal then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I think the BBC is neutral and usually its own worst critic. Picking up on #37, The Thick of It was aimed at the New labour regime as much as That Was the Week and Spitting image were aimed at the Tories ( both aired under Conservative governments). To be fair Spitting Image was harsh on every one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.


    It is still on though & now lampoons the Coalition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    Perfectly put, IMHO !

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    If Yes Minister lampooned the Tories(it ran during the Thatcher/Major years), then The Thick of It lampooned NuLabor(it ran during the Blair/Brown years).

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    43, I'd agree.

    As I say many people now beleive it is less neutral, because it is in fact more neutral, and has therefore shifted away from their own bias, which they see as being a neutral position.
    So neutral to the tory is leftist, and to the left it's pro-tory. The more flak they get from all sides the more neutral they are likely to be!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.


    I think the BBC is far more neutral now, and consciously so, paying far more heed to the Trust's Guidelines and public opinion.

    However, I would not subscribe to a view that suggests the BBC has always maintained neutrality, and this has been admitted by some ex-BBC managers.
    The newspaper in which the BBC advertised its jobs, especially editorial roles, was far from neutral.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    It is possible to judge a persons political view from how biased they think the BBC is. #37 is obviously a tory as they think the BBC is biased against them. People who think it's biased against labour/libs tend to vote these too.
    The reason reasarch has shown for the upsurge in people claiming antitory bias is that it's shown it used to be pro-tory biased. Research shows it's pretty neutral

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.


    "...created to lampoon Tory governments. But when it comes to lampooning Labour, then the BBC has a very different story.
    And over on ITV? Spitting Image stopped when Blair got in. QED."
    Never seen 'the thick of it'? Pure satire of Cambell/Blair 'spin culture'.

    And that ignores the BBC setting itself up as the opposition during the David Kelly incident

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.


    "...created to lampoon Tory governments. But when it comes to lampooning Labour, then the BBC has a very different story.
    And over on ITV? Spitting Image stopped when Blair got in. QED."

    I readily acknowledge my woeful lack of intellect, but I have to admit I did not understand your argument.

    Are you saying that both BBC and ITV are anti-Tory?
    Perhaps it extends further, et al ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    And just in time mr Maude's come out with some more critiism to stoke the fires, and the ratings!

    The civil service are supposed to run the country in a non-party politcial way

    It's hardly surprising that they clash with a group of chancers running the country into the ground!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The current cabinet are almost entirely bereft of intellect, matched only by the current opposition.

    Doesn't say much for the electorate though, does it?

    This country is about to get robbed bigtime via various "private finance initiatives"

    Watchdog identifies 'risks' of private infrastructure funding

    PFI has given them a taste for blood

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Re top rated 11

    From 'That Was The Week That Was' to 'Yes Minister' and the Ben Elton diatribes.
    The common thread? They were created to lampoon Tory governments.
    But when it comes to lampooning Labour, then the BBC has a very different story. One of omission and forgetfulness. Sometimes bias is revealed in what you don't do!
    And over on ITV? Spitting Image stopped when Blair got in. QED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Yes, well, someone has to keep the country running while the politicians pander to the lowest common denominator in the search for votes...


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