Late at night, the Muggle Prime Minister is sitting in his office, waiting for a phone call from another nation’s leader. He can’t stop thinking about his political opponents, who have been on the news every night explaining why the recent spate of disasters hitting England are his government’s fault. The Prime Minister doesn’t know how he could’ve anticipated the freak bridge collapse or the sudden hurricane that have cost scores of lives; and it’s not his fault that one of his Junior Ministers has chosen to “quack like a duck” in public. Even the weather reflects his sense of unease: the Prime Minister reflects that “all this chilly mist” isn’t normal in the middle of the summer.
It’s notable that the novel begins by describing catastrophes affecting the Muggle world which, as readers will soon see, originate with the Death Eaters. The fact that Wizarding conflicts are spilling into the Muggle world creates a sense of unprecedented danger, which will characterize Harry’s mood throughout the novel.
As he looks out the window, the Prime Minister hears a polite cough behind him; filled with dread, he turns around to see that a tiny portrait in his office is asking him to accept an “urgent” meeting with Cornelius Fudge. The Prime Minister stammers that it’s a bad time, but the wigged man is implacable. Fixing his tie, the Prime Minister hurries to his desk; he tries to look calm and unsurprised as a man appears in his fireplace and steps into the office, holding a lime green bowler hat.
The Prime Minister’s extreme reluctance to engage with the Wizarding world – and his desire to project a powerful image by situating himself behind a large desk and fixing his clothes – establishes him as reminiscent of the Dursleys, who see magic as inherently opposed to their aspirations to conventional success. Given the Dursleys’ negative portrayal, this parallel casts doubt on Muggle Prime Minister’s integrity.
The Prime Minister greets Cornelius Fudge unenthusiastically: generally, visits like this mean bad news. He notices that Fudge is looking “thinner, balder, and grayer” than ever before. Sitting down wearily, Fudge begins to complain about the same disasters that have plagued the Prime Minister: the bridge collapse and hurricane, as well as two “nasty and well-publicized” murders. Surprised, the Prime Minister asks if “your people” were “involved” in these events; without explaining, Fudge asks him sternly if he’s “realized what’s going on.”
Both the Muggle Prime Minister and Cornelius Fudge seem overwhelmed by the crises facing them: Fudge is physically worn down, and the Prime Minister is unable to deduce that the recent disasters are connected to the Wizarding world, despite Fudge’s obvious hints. Their mutual incapacity gives the impression that previously trusted governments are ill-equipped to face the newly powerful Voldemort.
The Prime Minister hates Fudge’s ability to make him feel “like an ignorant schoolboy,” which reminds him of their first meeting. He’d just won the election and was standing in his office when the tiny portrait began speaking to him, just like today. In that moment, the Prime Minister assumes he’s gone insane from stress, especially when a “self-proclaimed wizard” emerges from the fireplace to shake his hand and explain the existence of a secret Wizarding world. Fudge assures the Prime Minister that he doesn’t have to worry about the Wizarding world, which has its own government; this visit is only a formality, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever meet again.
It’s interesting that the Prime Minister doesn’t view Cornelius Fudge in terms of their shared political goals; rather, he only cares about the other man’s ability to seem more knowledgeable and powerful than him. As for Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic, the Muggle Prime Minister approaches political life as a means to acquire power and cultivate a respected image, rather than as an opportunity to serve the public.
Completely shocked, the Prime Minister asks why none of his predecessors warned him that this would happen. Chuckling, Fudge asks if he will ever reveal the visit to anyone, and the Minister realizes he can’t: people would think he’s crazy. After Fudge leaves, the Prime Minister tries to remove the enchanted portrait, but not even a carpenter can pry it off the wall.
Even though the Prime Minister’s conventional personality makes him somewhat hostile to the Wizarding world, it also ensures that he will protect its secrets.
For three years the Prime Minister hears nothing from Cornelius Fudge, until he arrives completely flustered in the middle of the night to warn that a killer named Sirius Black has escaped from the wizards’ prison, Azkaban. He explains that Black is an accomplice of a dark wizard named Voldemort, who may or may not still be alive. In subsequent years Fudge informs the Prime Minister of mysterious incidents at Wizarding sporting events and even a mass prison breakout. By this time, the Prime Minister has noticed that he’s seeing much more of his counterpart than Fudge originally anticipated, and that the “Other Minister” seems more “flustered” with each visit.
The Prime Minister’s limited glimpses of the Wizarding world create a sense of escalating catastrophes which the government is increasingly unable to contain. His observations reflect Harry’s increasing feelings of vulnerability and danger throughout the novel. It also encourages the reader to shift from seeing previous books as a series of conflicts in which Harry prevails to a series of disasters through which Voldemort becomes more powerful.
Now, the Prime Minister responds testily that he can’t possibly know what’s going on in the Wizarding world. Brusquely, Fudge says that they have “the same concerns:” in fact, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned, and his followers have caused both the bridge collapse and hurricane, as well as enchanting the Minister’s unfortunate Junior Minister.
Their willingness – even delight – in causing catastrophe in the Muggle world is one of the things that makes the Death Eaters truly evil, as it involves exercising power over those who can’t respond to or even understand it.
Trying to seem informed and in charge, the Prime Minister asks if Sirius Black is helping this dark wizard. Sheepishly, Fudge confesses that the Ministry was mistaken about Black all along: in fact, he’s recently died during a battle that occurred on Ministry of Magic premises. The Prime Minister feels pity for Fudge, as well as “smugness” that no one has been murdered in any of his governmental buildings.
Fudge’s confession is a reminder of the fallibility – even ineptitude – of government bureaucracy. However, the Prime Minister doesn’t see this as a general warning but rather evidence of Fudge’s personal weakness, showing his petty approach to political life.
The Wizarding world, says Fudge, is now at war with Voldemort. The Brockdale Bridge collapse was an act of reprisal after Fudge refused to step aside for Voldemort, while the “hurricane” was actually perpetrated by giants working for Voldemort. The Prime Minister is furious to hear that Fudge is “responsible” for a catastrophe for which he’s being blamed, but the Minister of Magic assures him that all his Aurors are on the hunt for Voldemort and his followers.
It’s telling that the Prime Minister is less worried about the actual catastrophes than his inability to deflect the blame for them. He’s obviously more concerned with his own image than the very real dangers facing the people he serves.
With few successes in the fight against Voldemort so far, morale is low in the Ministry – especially since Amelia Bones, head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, has recently been murdered by Death Eaters. Shocked, the Prime Minister mentions that this brutal murder featured prominently in his newspapers as well. Not seeming to listen to him, Fudge continues that the dementors, who have historically guarded the prison of Azkaban and have the magical ability to steal people’s souls, have deserted their posts and are now roaming the country at will. The Prime Minister grows faint to think of dementors “spreading despair and hopelessness in his voters.”
The death of Amelia Bones, a security expert and pillar of government, ushers in a new era of political insecurity and a sense that no one is truly safe from the Death Eaters. These events mirror what’s happening in Harry’s personal life, as he feels more alone and unprotected than ever. The Prime Minister’s description of constituents as “voters,” or vehicles to power, rather than people whom he serves, is another indication of his concerns as a politician.
The Prime Minister scolds Fudge, saying that he has to do something to contain Voldemort; but Fudge ruefully responds that it’s no longer his responsibility, as he’s been pushed out of his post three days ago. The purpose of his visit now is to introduce his successor. The Prime Minister feels pity. The wigged man in the portrait pipes up that the new Minister of Magic will arrive shortly, after finishing a letter to Dumbledore. Grimly, Fudge mutters that he “wishes him luck” in changing the wizard’s mind.
Even though they’ve emerged as inept and self-centered in the last pages, in this moment Fudge displays good grace and the Prime Minister feels empathy towards his counterpart. This demonstrates a lesson that Harry will learn over the course of the novel – that no one is completely devoid of good qualities.
Soon, a second wizard appears in the flames and steps into the office. The new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, looks like an old lion – he seems much tougher and shrewder than Fudge, and it’s easy to see why the Wizarding world prefers him in this time of crisis. The Prime Minister resents Scrimgeour’s overbearing attitude – he peremptorily begins to discuss new arrangements for the Prime Minister’s security – but Scrimgeour points out that it will be a disaster if Voldemort manages to enchant him. Scrimgeour explains that the Minister’s new secretary, Kingsley Shacklebolt, is actually an Auror working to protect the Minister.
Scrimgeour projects a more forceful and competent image than Fudge. However, as his later interactions with Harry will show, he’s just as inept when it comes to actually fighting Voldemort, and possibly even more self-centered. Scrimgeour demonstrates that an impressive exterior is not always an indicator of good character – something that Harry has long acknowledged when choosing friends and mentors.
Moving on, Scrimgeour says that the seemingly insane Junior Minister has been struck by an Imperius Curse, which forces the victim to do the bidding of the spell’s caster. He’s being treated at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies, where he’s already tried to murder three healers. Finishing his discussion, Scrimgeour prepares to leave, saying that Fudge will keep the Prime Minister abreast of any further developments. Finally collapsing under the strain of these new revelations, the Prime Minister cries out that, as wizards, the other men should be able to “sort out – well – anything.” Kindly, Fudge points out that “the other side can do magic too.” The two wizards disappear into the fire.
Even though the Prime Minister has often bristled at Fudge’s condescending and dismissive attitude, in light of recent events, he wants to see Fudge as a powerful figure who can solve anything. Fudge’s ironic admission of his inability is the first of several instances in the novel in which trusted authority figures will prove drastically fallible.