A core aim of our diary research is to provide new knowledge on the diarists we are studying. So far, our focus has mostly been on Margaret Thatcher and her interactions with cabinet ministers , but we also have access to data for Harold Wilson and various ministers/officials at the Department of Trade and Industry (1987-93).
On a wider level, though, our work will inform ongoing debates in the political sciences, and possibly other fields such as contemporary British history and elite studies. One of these debates relates to the nature and workings of the British core executive, or ‘the Centre’, which lays at the heart of democracy in the UK. I believe that our research on Prime Ministers will particularly illuminate the processes of policy formation in Whitehall.
The Centre in the UK can be thought of as a collection of institutions and networks in which the Prime Minister, whilst not endowed with presidential-levels of power, can certainly be considered ‘first among less equals’1. The prerogatives conferred to the PM, such as the ability to appoint (and dismiss) ministers, choose cabinet committees, and conduct bilateral negotiations with department heads, gives them unparalleled oversight of the government’s policy agenda.
In terms of how the PM exercises power depends greatly on the individual. It has been suggested, for example, that the PM’s office can be stretched like an elastic band to accommodate an assertive individual, or contracted for someone with a more relaxed approach2. The extent of their power at any given time, however, is contingent on a host of mutable factors such as their own personal conduct, public popularity, party support, and level of policy success. “A week is a long time in politics”, Harold Wilson famously said.
It’s also accepted that the Centre has gradually evolved over time. The PM’s office expanded under New Labour, for example, when attempts were made to systematically reorganise the Centre into something more coordinated and performance driven3. Today, under the auspices of Boris Johnson, further centralisation of power is afoot. Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has been given carte blanche to shake up Whitehall, citing “profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions”, and vowing to make “big changes” during the government’s honeymoon period4.
Despite all of the above, the role and undertakings of the PM are still shrouded in mystery and convention. Our network analytic approach will help to demystify it to a certain degree, and make it possible to compare the actions of core executive actors under different administrations. This is a important because a functioning democracy requires its citizens to have a better understanding of the decision-making process, and needs checks and balances “to guard against the abuse of power by one or a few powerful policymakers”5.
 Heffernan, R. (2003), “Prime ministerial predominance? Core executive politics in the UK”, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 5, 347-372.
 Jones (1990) Mrs Thatcher and the power of the PM, Contemporary British History, 3:4, 2-6.
 Burch, M., & Holliday, I. (2004), “The Blair government and the core executive”, Government and Opposition, 39, 1-21.
 Cummings, D. (2020, January) ‘Two hands are a lot’ — we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…. Dominic Cummings’s Blog. https://bit.ly/38LwlUj
 Dunleavy, P. (2018), “The core executive and government”, In P. Dunleavy, A. Park, Taylor, R. (Eds.). The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit. London: LSE Press.