Swiftboats and Fixed Terms

With the Christmas festivities safely concluded, I’ve decided to take a little time out from some truly excellent Christmas reading – Christopher Hitchens’ “Portable Atheist” is well worth the investment in book tokens – to tackle one of the most risible pieces of hypocritical political sophistry I’ve seen in some considerable time…

…Iain Dale’s ‘campaign‘ for fixed term parliaments.

Like Matthew Sinclair, I’m by no means averse to the idea of fixed parliamentary terms, but unlike Iain and other new found Tory converts to the ’cause’ of constitutional reform I actually understand the workings of the British constitution, in theory and practice, well enough to appreciate that the introduction of even a seemingly simple innovation, like fixed parliamentary terms, would require a significant restructuring of our entire constitutional settlement in order to prove workable, not least in necessitating a far greater and more substantive separation between the executive and legislature than has existed at any time since the English Civil War.

Fixed terms of office ‘work’, for example, under the US system precisely because their is a clear constitutional separation between the executive and legislature. Under such a system the executive authority of the presidency in not contingent on the support of the legislature, although the ability of the president to advance legislation in support of his preferred political agenda may be drastically curbed should control of Congress lie in the hands of his/her political opponents. Such a system is, therefore, not without its problems, not least insofar as it can, and often does, result in periods in which the presidency may be legislatively inert due to opposition in Congress but rarely do such periods result in full scale executive impotence. A president may not be able to legislate effectively without the support on Congress but he/she can at least continue to govern within the existing legislative framework they have to hand and see out their full term, even if this means spending their final two years in office as something of a ‘lame duck’.

In Britain there is no such complete separation and the ability of a government (and a Prime Minister) to govern is wholly reliant on their retention of majority support in the House of Commons. Lose that, as happened to Jim Callaghan in 1979, and the capacity to govern can dissipate in the space of a single motion of no confidence.

A true system of fixed term parliaments is possible only if one separates fully the executive and legislature, as occurs in the US presidential system, such that a Prime Minister may be removed from office ahead of his appointed time only be means of a judicial process (impeachment) rather than on the basis of a simple motion of no confidence. Anything less and, as Iain himself outlines here, all one does is move from a system in which elections are called ‘ahead of time’ by means of a Prime Minister making personal use of the royal prerogative to one in which elections continue to be called at times thought most favourable to an incumbent government on the basis of staged ‘constructive’ no confidence motion. Such a system changes nothing in principle, merely adds a bit of minor political theatre to the process in the form of a heavily whipped vote, one that in most cases a Prime Minister can rely on sufficiently to have the car waiting outside with the motor running for the short trip up The Mall to conclude the formalities with the reigning monarch.

Dale’s ‘campaign’ is a piece of transparent nonsense and deeply hypocritical nonsense at that.

His supposed ‘case’ for fixed term parliaments, as set out here by Conor Burns, consists solely of an unsupported assertion that Gordon Brown failed to ‘play the game’ and brought the constitution into ‘disrepute’ by seeking to manipulate the electoral calendar to his own partisan ends. As Matthew correctly points out, little good it did him in the end as he badly misjudged the whole process and wound up taking a hammering in the polls when he failed to ‘fess up the obvious, that it was the shift in the opinion polls after the Tory conference that settled matters and militated against an early poll, but in any case if there is allegedly something morally distasteful in the notion that incumbent Prime Ministers seek to time general elections to their, and their party’s, best advantage then Brown is hardly alone in finding himself faced with the assertion that he should be considered ‘guilty as charged’. As Burn’s notes, in both 1983 and 1987, Margaret Thatcher went to the country 12 months ahead of time, on the latter occasion after what he styles as ‘mild and predictable, partisan noises’ about an ‘advantageous’ budget prior to the election, and yet in cataloguing the ‘honourable’ reasons why earlier Prime Ministers (Eden, Heath and Wilson, in particular) went to the country ahead of time he appears to have nothing to offer by way of an assertion of Thatcher’s ‘honourable’ motives, in no small part because she had no such motives, only a desire to take maximum advantage for favourable polls – the very same charge for which Gordon Brown stands condemned as ‘a scheming, calculating, partisan politician prepared to put his political advantage ahead of his nation’s interests’.

One can hardly be surprised by this, in part because Burns’ laughable commentary appeared first at Conservative Home, a venue where the Blessed Margaret can do no wrong, but more so because Dale isn’t, in truth, running a campaign for fixed term parliaments or any sort of constitutional reform.

He is running a campaign of sorts, it has to be said, but only a campaign of character assassination against Gordon Brown, one in which Brown’s shilly-shallying over calling an early election has made the notion of fixed term parliaments an ideal vehicle for Dale’s swiftboating efforts. He tried much the same thing back in November in a Telegraph article slating Labour’s proposal to criminalise incitement to hatred on grounds of sexuality as anti-free speech, in which he claimed that Labour’s sole motive for introducing these proposals was to sow seeds of dissension in Tory ranks:

This is why Gordon Brown wants to add these amendments to the Crime and
Immigration Bill. He wants to put the Tories on the spot and make
political hay out of any splits. Shamefully, he is quite willing to use
the ”gay” issue to do it.

Shamefully, Iain seems prepared even to trade on his own sexuality to give credence to his efforts to smear Gordon Brown at every opportunity, despite the fact that equality legislation is one field in which Labour governments over the last ten years have had a clear and consistent track record.

In his New Year statement, last year, David Cameron stated that:

2007 will be the year that Labour’s dark side comes to the fore. With Blair going and Brown coming, we need to prepare ourselves for an onslaught of negative campaigning and the politics of fear and division.

All of which turned out to be less a prediction than a set of instructions to his minions and one followed to the letter by Iain Dale.

I’ll be interested to see whether Gordon Brown’s New Year message goes something along the lines of ‘what goes around, comes around.’

Also published at Liberal Conspiracy

  • Kent man

    Why should we not have a rolling parliament (talkingshop) of 55 year min. age, partyless “MP”s, who were selected by computer, and who were replaced every two years (or at death). The country could be run, as it should be, by the civil service rather than management consultants and the parliament could oversee the civil service through committees as at present and the ideas, that were discussed/generated in the talking shop, could be put to the population for acceptance or rejection before becoming law.
    We would have no need of parties, or the looming expense of maintaining them. We would have no need of “lobbying” (perverting the process of honest government).
    We would have no need of elections. The jury system we have seems to come up with better answers that the Westminster Sty.

  • yeah, because no jury ever sends an innocent person to jail, or acquits someone who is actually guilty.

    Doh!

  • Kent man

    I said “better answers” didn’t I? I did not say infallible. The current trough gobblers get every answer wrong, with the exception of their expenses and salaries etc. And they are voted in for a renewable 5 years per time. Look at our representative from Bolsover. A gravy train stayer.

  • Kent man, that’s not a particularly helpful comment, IMHO. MPs and peers are a remarkably diligent, honest lot.

    Going back to the main post, what’s needed is a convention that elections aren’t called until (say) the last 400 days (or whatever) of a Parliamentary term unless a Government loses a vote of no confidence, and that it doesn’t no-con itself. To do it, though, would require a categorical refusal to break that convention of a Shermanesque nature from Cameron and an acceptance of such from the broader Conservative party. Sadly, I agree with you about the intentions of the campaign you mention; they are less than honest.

    That is, I’d add, a much more conservative way of doing things, in keeping with the evolving nature of the UK constitution.

  • Kent man

    “IMHO. MPs and peers are a remarkably diligent, honest lot.”
    Well, Dave, I can only assume Cole is your pen name and you are the leader of one of our Westminster trough teams.
    They are all diligent enough to follow the “party line” after they have got themselves elected. They are all “approved” by the party before they stand for election…no one who is not in party member stands a cat in hells chance of being elected (unless he/she is a “Name with a cause”…the man in the white suit). They do not ask their constituents what their “needs” are, on the contrary they tell them what the party is going to do (which it never does).
    Diligent?????? Only when it comes to claiming expenses and voting salary increases
    As far as honest goes….Election campaign donations…Personal expense claims…Director ships of several companies whilst being MPs….covering up improper relationships…general deception of the public the list is endless.