Universe Column, June 17th 2007.
It’s not the first time that prime ministerial power has passed hands without a General Election. Jim Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson and John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher – both on the say so of their MPs in Parliament. Gordon Brown is set to do the same.
The golden rule of Erskine May – the parliamentary hand-book of House of Commons procedure – is always to ensure that there is a constitutional precedent for what you are doing. And so there is.
But beyond the constitutional niceties, Gordon Brown and his advisers would be well advised to reflect more deeply on those precedents and how they worked out.
In 1977, after the hand over to Jim Callaghan, Labour watched their parliamentary majority and authority ebb away. Callaghan tried to hang on to power by cobbling together the Lib-Lab Pact: an uneasy coalition of two parties who simply wanted to put off an election for as long as possible. The former Liberal Leader was on a conspiracy to murder charge and the country was teetering towards the Winter of Discontent. Neither Liberal nor Labour wanted an election.
I was a young parliamentary candidate when, in 1978, the Pact ended. The PM made a broadcast to the nation and I watched with incredulity as he appeared to tease about whether he would, or whether he wouldn’t, call an election. Finally, at the end of the broadcast, he said he wouldn’t.
When, in 1979, after a defeat in a Commons vote of no confidence, he was forced to the polls, the electorate got their own back and unceremoniously evicted him from Downing Street, replacing him with Margaret Thatcher.
When politicians are seen to cling to power it’s not a very edifying or inspiring spectacle. Nor does the electorate care much for procrastination.
By contrast, when he succeeded Margaret Thatcher in, John Major quickly called and secured a handsome General Election victory – in 1992 – having created the aura of freshness and competence.
After Margaret Thatcher’s decade of power, the electorate had wanted change but were deeply uncertain about Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. John Major provided them with change combined with experience and continuity. He resisted the temptation to cling on at any price.
The power to call an election when you choose is a power which Prime Minister’s cherish – but even they cannot go beyond five years. It was a lesson which John Major appeared to forget.
By 1997, the internecine battles in his warring party, charges of economic incompetence, the cash for questions scandal, apparent obsession with Europe, – and the emergence of Tony Blair – all conspired to undermine him. Like Jim Callaghan, he hung on until the bitter end – and what a bitter end it was.
What then are the lessons for Gordon Brown?
Speaking to Labour Party activists earlier this month he appeared to rule out a snap poll – suggesting that the next General Election will be in 2009. That would be a mistake.
At a fairly early date, he should make a virtue of the necessity of receiving a genuine electoral endorsement. The May 2008 local elections would be a good time to seek a fresh mandate. Until then he will suffer taunts from his opponents that he is in power because of Tony Blair not on his own merits.
By 2008 Gordon Brown will have had the opportunity to make a mark and to show
us what he is made of. Inevitably, though, as the months wear on he will lose some of the initial sense of sparkle and purpose. The longer he waits, the more time he will give David Cameron, in England, and Alex Salmond, in Scotland, to consolidate their positions and their parties.
In Scotland, Gordon Brown should not wait for the Scottish National Party to call a referendum on independence, at a time of their choosing, but combine the referendum with the General Election. If he genuinely wants to preserve the Union – and he does – it would be a huge error to leave this issue to fester.
Prime Ministers should be seen to be in charge of events. They look weak when others appear to be dictating them. They need to combine strong leadership with collegiality. Tony Blair demonstrated a great gift to reach out beyond a narrow party base and the new Prime Minister will need to do the same.
David Cameron seems to have reached a glass ceiling north of Birmingham; to defeat him, Gordon Brown needs to reach deep into every part of Britain.
Gordon Brown has a hard act to follow but he should not be under-estimated.
When he was a young MP we shared a platform at a rally against unemployment. At the time, I was impressed by his passion and his conviction. In the Commons, I sat through his Maiden Speech. It was grounded in hard won experience.
His Scottish antecedents, his father’s profound influence (he gave a copy of his father’s sermons to Pope Benedict during a visit to the Vatican), and the recent experiences of both joy and pain within his family life, make Gordon Brown the man he now is.
As he takes on the highest political office he deserves both a prayer and some goodwill. How he uses that office, and how long he remains there, will depend on courage, wisdom, and some luck.