Friday, October 12, 2007

The return of House Points: Where Gordon Brown went wrong

My column returns to Liberal Democrat News this week, but thanks to the postal strike I have not seen a copy of the paper yet.

Party games

Welcome back to Westminster. Most MPs expected to be out on the streets by now, wrestling with letterboxes and being harassed by Jack Russells. Instead they find themselves in the Commons listening to Alistair Darling help himself to fistfuls of Tory policies.

Gordon Brown, it has to be admitted, has made a fool of himself. But let’s be clear why.

It is not because he has failed to call a general election. Ours is not a presidential system and there is no obligation - constitutional or moral - on any new prime minister to call an immediate election.

In fact if Gordon Brown had gone to the Palace to ask for an early dissolution, there would have been a lot to say for the Queen replying with something like: “Mr Brown, you have a large majority and two and half years of this Parliament left. Go away and govern, you silly little man.”

Nor is there much to the Tories’ vulgar claim that Brown has ‘bottled’ it. If a prime minister is not sure he will win a mid-term election, it is a good idea not to call one.

No, Brown’s mistake was to allow the speculation to run on for so long. In particular, he pulled off the extraordinary feat of forcing the Conservatives to stage a successful party conference. Confronted by the prospect of an imminent poll, they forgot what a rabble they are and put on a convincing show of confidence and unity.

Another effect of Gordon Brown’s dithering has been to emphasise the role that party interest plays in our system. You could say that this was a valuable exercise in political education, except that public’s opinion of politicians was quite low enough already.

The Liberal Democrat response to this has been to rediscover our support for fixed-term Parliaments. On Monday David Howarth and David Heath tabled a bill that would name the election date as the first Thursday in May every four years and outlaw the dissolution of Parliament between those polls.

This must be the right approach. Though quite how it squares with our frequent calls for Gordon Brown to hold an election as soon as he took over from Tony Blair is not immediately apparent.

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