Conservative Home

« Donal Blaney: How to build on this momentous weekend | Main | Nick Wood: Hats off to David Cameron »

Conor Burns: It's time for fixed-term parliaments

Conor1_3Conor was the Conservative Candidate in Eastleigh at the last two General Elections. He was recently appointed Senior Hon Vice President of Conservative Future.

If, as he obviously wanted to do, Brown had called an election in November where would Nov ’07 have sat in the context of the elections since the Second World War?

There have been fifteen complete parliaments since the war. Only two have run their full term (1959-64 and 1992-97). Three Parliaments were dissolved after 19 months at most because of small or non-existent majorities. All the rest lasted over three and a half years.

In April 1955 Sir Anthony Eden wanted a personal mandate when he took over from Churchill – although the Parliament was already three and a half years old.  In February 1974 Ted Heath was, after three and a half years, forced by the miner’s strike into an appeal to the country. In her two successful re-election campaigns Margaret Thatcher went to the country after just four years in 1983 and in 1987. Wilson did likewise when Labour’s fortunes improved in the polls in 1970.

Looking back over all the elections since the Second World War there have actually been very few serious accusations of the incumbent Government abusing the constitutional right of the Prime Minister to seek a dissolution of Parliament before the end of the full term.  Some mild, and predictable, partisan noises have been made about advantageous budgets prior to the elections of 1955, 1966, 1970, and 1987 (2 Labour, 2 Conservative).  In both 1964 and 1978 it is arguable that the governing party postponed by 6 months from their planned election date in the expectation or hope of better conditions at the latter time (1 Labour, 1 Conservative)

So where then would Gordon Brown’s aborted snap election have sat in the historical sweep? It would have clearly been out of kilter with every other election we have seen since the Second World War.

  • Did Brown require to get a working majority as Wilson did in 1966 or October 1974?  No, Labour has a working majority of 69 seats.
  • Does Brown face a national crisis such as Ted Heath confronted/created in 1974? Not that we yet know about.
  • Did he want to call a snap ‘mandate’ election a la Eden in 1955? Well Eden called an election quickly. Brown has been Prime Minister since the summer.

Assuming (and I would say it is a fair assumption) that his answers to Andy Marr were as heavyweight as the questions we must rely on the briefings on and off the record that emanated from the Labour conference in Bournemouth (or as David Cameron so accurately noted as our PM might put it BornMouth).

Lord Kinnock is not yet complete in his service to the Conservative Party.  Having used his abilities to assist Lady Thatcher to her stunning third election victory in 1987 and having pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory for Labour in 1992 he gave us the candid reason for Brown’s anxious dash to the country in his speech to the fringe.  Lord Kinnock spoke with usual verbosity and ended by urging his party to “grind the bastards (that would be you and me and any other Conservative) into dust.”  Others spoke of Brown’s lofty, noble and patriotic aim to ‘finish them off’ or ‘destroy them’. Those were the motivations of the man who has been playing national statesman and nation-wide trouble shooter since his arrival in Number 10.

It is easy in the cut and thrust of the debate of the last few days to lose sight of how serious what has just happened actually is. Every previous Prime Minister has had profound respect for the British constitution.  All of them have used their power to call an election in order to win – but only because each has believed that their vision would be best for Britain. Not this one.

For the first time Britain has a Prime Minister who was seriously prepared to go to Her Majesty the Queen and ask for a dissolution of Parliament with more than half of that Parliament still to run, with foot and mouth disease and blue tongue present on British Farms, two weeks after the Bank of England had to intervene to stop a run on a British High Street Bank, into order to and motivated by a desire to ‘destroy’ his political opponents.

This will be the defining moment of this man’s premiership.  The comparisons with Jim Callaghan have already begun.  They are wide of the mark and utterly flawed.  Jim Callaghan was a man of decency, integrity and honour.  His misfortune was to lead Labour at its most unleadable and at a time when the intellectual tide was flowing inexorably towards Margaret Thatcher and the right of politics.

No - this man is exposed as a scheming, calculating, partisan politician prepared to put his political advantage ahead of his nation’s interests.  He made two mistakes in recent weeks that will stay with him for the rest of his career.  Firstly he teased the British public.  He could have dampened speculation at any time. He chose not to. They know he wanted to call an election. And he knows they know.  Then he funked the ‘tough choices’ he is so fond of talking about.  Instead of taking on the media as a whole he called in the decaffeinated Sunday AM presenter.  Anyone who watched the colour of the cheeks of Adam Bolton or Nick Robinson as Andy Marr made his way into Number 10 cannot be under any illusion that they will to have their revenge on Mr Brown at a time of their choosing.

Brown has treated this whole exercise as a game. A game whose rules he will decide and a game to be played solely for the advantage of his premiership and the Labour party.  Never before have we had such a Prime Minister. Luckily for Britain he bottled his early election.  That will not be forgotten. But reflect of what could have happened if the uncertainty had continued into this week with the Chancellor revising growth figures downwards and the economy in a state of flux.  A stock market slide?  Real people’s pension funds shrinking?

I have now changed my mind on an important element of the British constitution. I would like to see fixed term Parliaments of 4 years (with immediate elections on the loss of a vote of confidence) and I would like to see the Conservative Party embrace this idea and do so soon. It is the case in the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and every local Council. We should embrace this not for any Party advantage but for the national interest.  I’d never thought to see a Prime Minister who would consider using this power of decision for personal advantage.  I’ve now seen one and I really don’t like what I see.

I know David is not yet convinced.  But I hope he is open-minded. If we want to give people more power over their lives and make the state smaller and the individual bigger let’s send a signal by taking an important power off the Prime Minister. By abolishing this medieval power to dissolve we can say with candour that the country would never experience this sinister pantomime under a Conservative Government. So David when you are asked what the difference between is between you and Brown consider answering, “I want to give away the power to decide when the general election will be called. I’m in this for people and not for Party. I’m in this for my country not myself.”

It is a shame that Brown won’t now end up as the shortest serving Prime Minister since George Canning. Canning died in office. But after the last few weeks I’m optimistic. The only meaningful difference between Canning and Brown is that Brown is, for now, still walking.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.