Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 26 April 2010

Cameron's six month dog's breakfast

I only saw a headline for this yesterday but David Cameron has announced that he wants there to be a six month limit for new Prime Ministers who come to office without having been subject to a General Election. After this limit they would be forced to dissolve parliament and go to the country.

This has set a number of thoughts/questions off in my mind:

  • I cannot find any mention of this policy in the Conservative Manifesto. They only published it two weeks ago. Why is it not in there?
  • We have a parliamentary system, not a presidential system. Although I think it is probably better that a PM gets their own mandate it is not necessary and it would seem odd to compel this to happen in isolation without other reforms.
  • For example, what is to happen if a PM dies in office? I don't think it is a good idea under these circumstances for a successor PM to be forced to go to the country. In a properly Presidential system we might see something like a Vice President who runs on the same ticket as the Presidential candidate and in effect inherits the mandate upon the death of the President. Would we have something like that here? A Vice Prime Minister? And if so, what powers would that person have whilst the PM was still alive? We would also need to think about how a successor Vice PM could be chosen under these circumstances too.
  • Incoming PMs usually have a honeymoon period. They vary in length but an effect of this would probably be for a PM who accedes outside of an election to go to the country within a few weeks to capitalise on their likely high ratings. They would have little to lose given that they would be forced to do so in a few months' time anyway.
  • For a party that bangs on about stability in government all the time this seems like a potential recipe for a less stable situation.
  • If we go down this road, we are making our system more and more presidential. There will be unforeseen consequences to this as our unwritten constitution adapts to accommodate it. Now these consequences may not necessarily be bad but surely it would be better to plan out things like this properly rather than just fiddling with little bits of the constitution without any broader idea of the likely effects.

And I think that last point sums it up for me. This smacks of the worst kind of tinkering of the sort Tony Blair was frequently guilty. I remember how he wanted to abolish the position of Lord Chancellor and indeed if I remember correctly it was actually announced. Then someone pointed out that this was not actually constitutionally possible and they quickly had to scurry around in the background making rushed changes to their proposals so that they could work.

I had hoped that the Conservatives would have learned from things like that announcements on the hoof that are ill-thought through often leave more problems in place than they solve but apparently not.


Rusty Liberal said...

Good points well made Mark.

If I can be a little party political here, I would also add the comment I made on Twitter, specifically aimed at David Cameron.

There are already rumblings coming from the Tory party about the way in which Cameron has handled the election. Tories have committed regicide twice in the past twenty years with the dumping of one of their most successful PMs of all time, Margaret Thatcher and also the coup that removed Iain Duncan Smith as party leader. John Major was also forced to defend himself in the 'put up or shut up' leadership election in 1995.

As well as being 'policy on the hoof' a la Blair as you rightly pointed out, it is also a message to Tory MPs that if you sack me as PM, you will trigger an election which may not be in our interest. It therefore smacks of self-interest. Even worse, I think that Cameron may view this (as a rather feeble attempt) at some kind of parliamentary reform.

It is true that Blair's personal style was more presidential and maybe the leaders debates have somewhat crystalized this focus on personality which may appeal to the X-factor generation.

Personally I am rather pleased that at the fag end of this parliament MPs started to reclaim some of the powers that the executive had removed from them with regard to setting the timetable for parliamentary business and also making sure that we can never again go to war without parliamentary approval.

There are many reforms that need to be made to parliament but moving towards a presidential system is not one of them. The contempt with which Blair treated parliament should never again be allowed to happen and I wouldn't want to support any measure that moves us into this kind of 'presidential' territory.

Alex said...

And of course, this proposal mean we still wouldn't have fixed term parliaments. A party could then get rid of an unpopular leader, appoint a new, more likeable one, and call a snap election and go on to win.

This proposal has been discussed as stopping PMs from being "unelected", which is something that has really got on my nerves. All PMs are equally elected. They are elected by their constituents. Who elected Tony Blair? Only the people in Sedgefield.

One of the advantages of a Parliamentary system over a Presidential system is that the PM has to have the confidence of the House. This is usually trivial under FPTP with its huge majorities, but under PR, this would be an important check on executive power.