Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Prime Ministerial Prerogative

With all the on and off speculation there has been ever since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister about whether and when he will or won't call an election, something has been bugging me.

We don't have a presidential system in this country and yet it is the PM and him/her alone who is tasked with taking the decision about when an election should be. Now I personally think that we should at least try and have some sort of fixed term parliament such as this campaign is trying to achieve. There are all sorts of practical barriers to this with our current system but I think they could be overcome with the political will.

Anyway, given that we do have a situation where the party in power via the PM can bacially dissolve parliament whenever it wishes I do wonder about the wisdom of allowing that power to reside in the hands of one person. I am not talking about this from any sort of partisan perspective, it is just from the perspective of trying to achieve a balance within democracy and not allowing one party to hugely dominate the House of Commons.

The problem as I see it is that because the Prime Minister can call the election whenever (s)he wishes, they are going to do so at a time that is best for them. Sometimes (often?) their own interests will coincide with their party's interests. However that is not always the case. I would suggest that the situation that Gordon Brown finds himself in now, or will do very soon as the recession bites is that Labour's poll ratings will keep sliding. If he was to go to the country right now, judging by the polls we may have a hung parliament and Labour may even be the single largest party despite being several points behind (due to our iniquitous electoral system which I have blogged about previously). The point is that most commentators think that Labour's position will worsen as the recession gets worse, indeed that seems to have started happening already.

I think that in say 6 months time, the polls could be getting pretty bad for Labour and it will look unlikely at that point that Labour could win. However it is likely that at that point, the Tory majority might only be a couple of dozen seats meaning that the subsequent election would be up for grabs. In 18 months time from now after the battering the country will likely take, when Brown will be forced to go to the country, the Tory majority could be 100+ meaning that Labour would likely be out of power for a decade or more.

Now I hold no candle for Labour and in a way they deserve many years in the wilderness after some of the things they have done in power. However after having seen the damage wreaked by both major parties when they have huge majorities and can push legislation through unopposed, I would much prefer there to be a strong, robust opposition challenging for power. It strengthens democracy and causes there to be better laws and better thought through policies.

But put yourself in Gordon Brown's position in both of the scenarios I highlighted above. In both cases in 6 months time and in 18 months time he loses and resigns as Labour leader (these days it is inconceivable that a PM will stay on after an election defeat - I still cannot understand how Wilson managed it in 1970). So for him in 6 months time the choice is to lose now or have one more year as PM. It is very difficult for those in positions of ultimate power to relinquish that power (look at how John Major clung on by his fingertips right to the very end and even had a 6 week prorogation of parliament just to eke out that little bit more time). As a commentator said in the weekend press, there always seemed to be something deep within Jim Callaghan that said 1976 - 1979 looks better in the history books than 1976 -1978. Brown may well be thinking the same thing.

Now put yourself in the position of someone like James Purnell or Ed Milliband, both able and gifted Cabinet Ministers who are young and in the ascendancy. They have been talked about as future leaders of their party. Which of the two scenarios (6 months or 18 months) are they likely to opt for given the choice? I am certain they would happily give up an extra year of power now in order to mitigate the scale of a defeat and leave them to regroup and be seriously challenging for power in 4 or 5 years time. Rather that than the best years of their political careers spent in opposition they will doubtless think. I suspect much of the Cabinet feels the same way. But of course they do not get a vote. It is a situation where the wishes of even very senior members of the governing party could diverge in the most fundamental way from its leader.

I don't suppose there will be a change any time soon with the current state of affairs, however if things start to get really bad again for Labour, the problems Brown suffered last summer could come back, fuelled by the knowledge of Purnell, Milliband et al that the only way to remove the prerogative from Brown's hands is to remove him from the premiership altogether themselves.


skipper said...

I've been in favour of fixed term sessions for a long time and you are right Brown would probably minimize the damage if he went now. But he will always
think 'something will turn up' to persuade him to hang on to the bitter end as you suggest. Also remember parties can lose a lot of support during a 3-4 campaign. Gordon could go now but suffer a collapse of voter confidence during the run up to polling day.

Mark Thompson said...

Yes, the allure of "something will turn up" must be very powerful to someone like Brown in his current predicament.

I cannot remember where I saw read it now (perhaps Alan Watkins in the Independent?) but I did read that the cabinet actually does have the constitutional power to dissolve parliament. I have not seen anything else to back this up though. Do you know anything about this Skipper?