Power without a patronage network: Fudge and the Ministry of Magic
Cornelius Fudge became Minister of Magic almost by chance, mainly because he wasn't Bartemius Crouch - and because Dumbledore didn't apply. (There may have been other heavyweight candidates like Amelia Bones that didn't want the job to go to one of their rivals.) With next to no clientele of his own, Fudge had (and still has) no real personal following in the Wizengamot, who, it is likely, appoint the Minister; so his position was insecure from the start. Nor was his reputation high. "Bungler if ever there was one" is Hagrid's verdict, and the fact that he said it just after reading the Daily Prophet suggests this opinion may have been common. This is why, for his first two years in office, Fudge was "forever asking Dumbledore for help and advice," pelting him "with Owls every morning" - an alignment that ensured Fudge the support of Albus Dumbledore's powerful faction.
Even on more recent occasions Cornelius Fudge has betrayed a striking sense of vulnerability, and a deep unwillingness to challenge popular opinion - with regard to leaving Hagrid at large, or the need to do a deal with the giants: "people hate them, Dumbledore - end of my career." It is only when his position as Minister (and the patronage at his disposal) allowed him to expand his clientele (making alliances of his own, accepting support in return for favours) that he began to perceive himself as a power in his own right and ceased to defer to Dumbledore. Eventually he even came to look on Dumbledore as a threat, as the head of a dangerously independent patronage network which he believed to be plotting against him - but one of the chief reasons why he could feel threatened by Dumbledore was because he was ("deep down") aware of his own weakness. This wasn't just an underlying awareness that Dumbledore was a "better wizard" than he was, or of Dumbledore's cleverness and popularity, but of his own political weakness too.
To Harry and his friends, the Ministry of Magic (during Order of the Phoenix) seems like a monolith, with Cornelius Fudge in charge, telling the Daily Prophet what slanders to print and what news to ignore, making whatever laws he pleases and creating a reign of terror in Hogwarts. In fact, the Ministry of Magic is riven with factions, and Fudge's own personal network is neither large nor very able. We see this from what happened at Harry's trial before the Wizengamot. The most important political figure there, Amelia Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement (to which all other departments defer, "with the possible exception of the Department of Mysteries") is not only clearly outside Fudge's counsels but shows herself to be highly independent of him. Her chief reaction to Harry's "crime" is to be impressed he could do such a difficult spell in the first place! Of the fifty who sat in the Wizengamot trial only six voted with Fudge, and Umbridge was the only one to intervene in support of her patron. Moreover, Fudge's most trusted adherent - the very official on whom he relied to take on Dumbledore in his own power base - is a remarkably stupid woman, with a dangerous tendency to exceed orders that brings to mind Bellatrix Lestrange. She does a great deal to damn her patron's cause - and not just by making all but a handful detest her for her reign of terror in Hogwarts. Her banning of the Quibbler only ensured that everyone read it, and for someone who came to Hogwarts with a brief to stop Dumbledore from creating a private army there, her actions more than anyone else's brought the DA into existence.
As Minister of Magic Fudge theoretically controls by far the biggest strategic resource, but the small size of his patronage network (and its uncertain loyalty) greatly inhibits his freedom of action. It's a telling point that one of the two Aurors he brought with him to confront Dumbledore happened to be one of Dumbledore's own secret adherents. Nor is it really clear how far Fudge was able to pressure the Daily Prophet into making Harry an object of ridicule, in spite of what Hermione thinks. In turning against Harry (and maybe Dumbledore too) Fudge was actually following the Prophet's lead, not pressing the paper to follow his. It was the Daily Prophet's systematic program of discrediting Harry and undermining his credibility (in Goblet of Fire) that caused Fudge to distrust him in the first place, as Harry recognised all too clearly: "you've been reading Rita Skeeter." At other times, both at the start of Philosopher's Stone and at the end of Order of the Phoenix, we see that the paper is anything but afraid of attacking the Ministry of Magic directly, which makes it doubtful how much pressure Fudge could really bring to bear.
Fudge's real faction is thus a small and undistinguished minority at the Ministry of Magic, and he isn't fully in control of it. Even after five years in office they are limited in number, importance and brains. By throwing every ounce of political capital he had at squashing the supposed threat from Dumbledore, he managed to drive the Dumbledore faction largely underground at the Ministry, but he wasn't actually able to dismiss them - and in most cases he didn't know who they were. It took him months to move against Dumbledore's power base in Hogwarts, slowly and incrementally, and when he thought he had succeeded it turned out to be a trap. Fudge's power depended on allies rather than clients, and since allied factions have to be persuaded or bought, he increasingly came to depend on the Daily Prophet and Lucius Malfoy for propaganda and for money. Malfoy's robe audibly clinked with gold on his way to visit Cornelius Fudge, and it is significant, I think, that Dolores Umbridge should have been so open about her crimes (including things that she would definitely not have wanted Fudge to know) in front of Draco and his friends, and basically drew her Inquisitorial Squad from the children of members of Lucius Malfoy's faction. (The children of Fudge's own Ministry officials, like Marietta, are ambivalent on the whole). In other words, the most trusted member of Fudge's inner circle was in far closer confidence with an allied patronage network than she was with Fudge himself. How long this has been going on for?
Her words to Snape are extremely telling: "Lucius Malfoy always speaks most highly of you" - implying she has personal contact with Malfoy over the running of the school. It's tempting to say that Malfoy had recruited her - and yet she really does seem genuinely loyal to Cornelius Fudge, and to the Ministry-based ideology of order and rules. (That is something she shares with Percy: she's just vastly more ruthless and sadistic about what she's prepared to do to ensure its triumph.) This is more than the close alliance of two patronage networks, though; it's a sign that Fudge doesn't control his own one enough to prevent a conspiracy to manipulate him between one of his most trusted officials and a rival patron; to manipulate him for his own good, of course - that is how Dolores sees it.
Continued in Part 3...