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this week ministers used the good offices of The Times to declare war on the civil service, dismissing Whitehall as "outdated" and "unfit for purpose".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

    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

    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

    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 Mali what are we to expect or what does this entail?

  • rate this

    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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I suggest one major factor in the (lack of) apopreciation of the New "Yes Minister" was the clear - to me - endeavours of the cast (director/producer?) to play it all for laughs, whereas one facet of the original - Eddington & Hawthorne especially - was that they played it 'straight'. We (the viewers) saw or heard the comedy, the actors were not trying to underline the jokes or push the script.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.


    As witty as Ian Hislop is he does favour mocking Lab, even out of power, more than the Coalition parties, even though they are in power.

    But his bias is very slight - just like Jeremy hardy's reverse bias on the News Quiz is.....& with both being satire it doesn't really matter.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.


    " I didnt even mention Jeremy Hardy on the News Quiz "

    I love the News Quiz but had to switch off recently because Hardy just went on and on, nauseatingly, having a bigoted "pop" exclusively at the Tories.
    It wasn't humour, just plain vitriol.

    Have I got News For You is superior, partly because they have a "pop" at everyone and I expect Hislop insists on that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I'm quite interested in politics generally, but just couldn't raise the interest to watch this series, which I'm sure is doomed to failure. Most people would tend to relate the series prime minister to our current prime minister, and frankly who would want to bother!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Not a patch on the original. Without Eddington, Hawthorne and Fowldes how could it be?
    The laughter track was very was so obviously someone with a switch, turning it up and down.
    The 'laughter' came in after almost every line, funny ot not. I only lasted to the ad break because the laughter was so predictably irritating.
    Shame to besmirch the name of a TV classic like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I have not seen the "new" Yes Minister,but it will have to be good to match the original.
    Jim Hacker character was uproarously funny,and so was his dedicated civil servant.
    Usually remakes do not live up to the original,but I will look at it anyway!
    Have present day programme makers lost their originality as they return to yesteryears greats?
    Or was there more reasons for good comedy in the past?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I really wanted to like it.... but switched off disappointed after 10 mins finding it poorly cast, dated, and lacking believability.

    In the 3-channels days, sitcoms had to tickle a ''broader church'' and all our family loved the old ''Yes PM''. I love 'The Thick of it'' but my parents don't. Nowadays, if you try to appeal to everyone's humour,'ll probably end up appealling to no-one's!

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    At least with "Yes Prime Minister" I could switch it off half way through, when it was obvious it had nothing new to offer. That, alas, is one area where the programme fails to reflect real life politics

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    "...There is perhaps too much sitting around talking and not enough plot to keep the drama going."
    There is perhaps much applicability of this program to the Coalition Govt which tends to to talk to itself endlessly while accomplishing little, and what it does seem to accomplish is too frequently retracted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    "Does Whitehall still say Yes, Prime Minister?"


    It says Yes Mr Barrosso. Touch my forelock Mrs Merkel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I would have been more enthused if they'd changed the character names to reflect a later government rather than teleporting the Hacker administration into new actors and a new time frame.

    Without Nigel Hawthorne you can't have Humphrey Appleby. Move on to new characters and new characterizations instead of trying to recapture the chemistry of the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    55.ichabod - "Maybe Tory governments create better creative conditions for certain satirical-type comedy........"

    In parge part they do - after all, whenever Tories are in power the comedy circuit, both on & off screen, seems to come alive with polictical satire.....

    ....which eases off in numbers when Lab are in.....

    ...maybe that's because for all Lab's faults the Tories have more?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    This is a comedy show !! ?

    I thought it was a 'Fly on the wall' documentary !

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Perhaps satirical comedies are more pertinent and fondly remembered when there is an exectionable period of politics. That was the week coincided with the Profumo affair, Spitting Image with the Thatcher years, Thick of it with the decline of New Labour (Iraq war). All are memorable perhaps due to events and the governments at the time ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    We are already witnessing the comedy of this Dog of a govt when all the Crimson Tide PM can talk about is winning the Glow Bulb race!


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