I agree with the point David Cameron makes about hung Parliaments and coalition politics: the problem with them, and the proportional representation that would all but require them, is that they result in politicians, not the voters, deciding who governs. It becomes very, very difficulty to sack a government you hate – a power the British people don’t realise they have, and perhaps won’t, till it’s gone. I’m not sure what the solution is in the context of three-party politics. I do know PR for the House of Commons would be a mistake.
But Cameron is now also proposing that Parliament should have to be dissolved within 6 months of a change of Prime Minister.
I have some difficulty with this on its merits. What would happen if there were a hung Parliament? In the days after May 6 we may have a succession of Prime Ministers. Gordon Brown may be able to hang on for a week or two, or for months supported by a minority Labour party, or by the LibDems. If it only becomes clear after a few weeks that minority or Lib-Lab government could not be sustained, and David Cameron has to be sent for – should he have to call another election within 6 months? If Nick Clegg does a deal, say on May 12th, to serve under a new Labour leader, with Gordon Brown resigning – should there have to be an instant election then? Even worse, consider the constitutional position had the Brighton bomb succeeded, and the Prime Minister killed. Under Cameron’s new plan, we’d have had to have an election in Spring 1985, less than two years since the previous one. That would have been pointless and unfair to Labour – Neil Kinnock had by then had only one full year to begin transforming his party and would have been much less ready than he was two years after that. An instant election would have handed a new Tory leader power until 1990; and if you think about it, Kinnock might never have been able to reform Labour.
But the real point I want to make is that the new proposal is the direct opposite of the other bad idea he previously toyed with, of fixed-term Parliaments. The idea of fixed-term Parliaments is to remove the incumbent government’s advantage – or even an incoming government’s advantage – by making sure elections are spaced at 4 or 5 year intervals, with no option to go to the people early. Under this new plan, a governing party could engineer an election when it wanted, by timing a change of leader. It might have suited Gordon Brown very well, in fact, had he been forced to go to the country in Autumn 2007, instead of being able to flunk it, as he did. It certainly would have helped John Major win a “khaki” election in Spring 1991, soon after the defeat of Iraq in Kuwait. It would have given them each a perfect excuse to “cut and run” to take advantage of a poll bounce. Cameron’s proposal assumes that early elections are a constraint on new Prime Ministers – but in fact, they might often haved liked them, had they been able to get away with them.
Politicians’ constitutional whimmery has to stop. Is it even worth mentioning that this wasn’t in the Tory manifesto?