Rocket scientists need not apply

EVERYONE loves to speculate about the timing of elections, don’t they?

It’s one of the most peculiar and fascinating aspects of our (uncodified) constitution that incumbent prime ministers are allowed to choose a date for a general election; citizens of nations where fixed term parliaments are the norm must gaze in wonder and bewilderment at our set-up.

Not that I’m making a case for fixed term parliaments here. It is the current rules that have allowed us to escape the tyranny of proportional representation for so long –  after all, when there’s a guaranteed four-year wait for the next election to come along, you’re pretty much obliged to cobble together a coalition deal with the nearest Liberal. As it stands, leaders of minority governments usually have the option of calling a second election in an effort to win an outright majority, as Wilson did in October 1974, following eight months of a hung parliament.

In today’s Times, Daniel Finkelstein tries to ratchet up the pressure on the PM to consider holding an early election. His logic, as usual, is persuasive, but I think he may have got it wrong on this occasion.

Because whenever a journalist asks me the question, “When will the election be?”, I give the same answer: whenever Gordon reckons he can win.

And this is not a unique or unprecedented choice he faces: every single one of his predecessors in modern times has weighed exactly the same considerations. Douglas Home held on for as long as possible and almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat; Wilson misjudged and should probably have held off until 1971; Heath gambled and lost; Callaghan was forced into an election he probably should have held eight months earlier; Thatcher, Major and Blair all chose dates that they judged would best suit their parties’ electoral prospects.

This isn’t cynicism. Let me clarify that: this isn’t unjustified cynicism. The reason prime minsters are given this latitude is specifically to allow them room for manoeuvre for party political ends.

Setting aside the rights and wrongs of such a system (it’s the only one we have at the moment), GB is faced with the same choice, and the same restrictions and flexibilities, as his predecessors. He will take advantage of that maneouvrability, and so he should. 

But instead of columnists and commentators trying to read the PM’s mind, or attempting to read the entrails of small mammals, they should save themselves time by simply remembering that prime ministers want to win elections.

This is not rocket science – it’s simple arithmetic. If, by spring 2009, the polls are showing a consistent likliehood of a Labour victory, then GB will hop in the Jag and head for the palace. If they don’t, he’ll stay put. If the polls don’t show the required lead between now and June 2010, then the election will be postponed until… that’s right – June 2010.

As I say, it’s not rocket science. But it’s damn fine entertainment.



Filed under Gordon Brown, Government, Media, Politics

18 responses to “Rocket scientists need not apply

  1. Donkey Kong

    There, there, Tom. No matter when Gordon calls the election, you’re both going to be on the dole a few weeks later. Must be nice knowing that. 😉

  2. Thank you for explaining that, Tom. Most enlightening. I must remember to make a note of it.

  3. Andrew F

    Yeeeeeah, buuuuutttt: it’s worth noting that when Gordon didn’t call an election 15 months ago, he claimed his decision had nothing to do with the likely outcome.

    Of course, everyone knew this was a lie; he let the speculation go on and on until the Tories got a bump in the polls; and then we had that cringe-worthy interview with Nick Robinson. Nevertheless, it seems odd that you want coulumnists to work under the assumption that Brown was lying. Confused.

    Oh nevermind. You’re trying for this common sense, politician-of-the-reasonable-man thing – but you just can’t quite pull it off while also being tribalist.

  4. Daniel Finkelstein, persuasive logic? Are you drunk? The man’s a Tory propagandist pretending to be a journalist, or at least his blog makes him look like one.

  5. Chris' Wills

    As you say, it’s the system we have for good or ill.

    We await the word of your Dear Leader, “we saved the world” Brown.

    I’d prefer a fixed term, with shorter periods between elections if a vote of no confidence is past.

    I’m not sure why it’s entertaining, except for the bookies of course. Uncertainty doesn’t normally help anyone.

  6. Tacitus

    “But it’s damn fine entertainment.”

    Huge fun! Spoke to a friend of mine a couple of days ago – she lives off the state pension and off the interest on her savings.

    She’s now short about £400 a month, because of the interest rate cuts, and struggling to make ends meet.

    She finds it a right laugh.

  7. Johnny Norfolk

    When a government knows it has no chance of winning.
    When it has a large majority.
    When it has MPs that are complient to the requirements of the party and not the country, it will have the General Election as late as possible. Power is everything to these people.
    Brown is as good an example as you get.
    Germany can see the truth of the man, but our media cannot, they have been taken in by hospitality, spin, previous freindships and fear.
    So anybody like this will hang on as long as possible.
    They are trying to put off doing what will have to be done in the hope they can con the people into voting for them yet again. This is the true Labour party. Both in government and opposition they are bad for Britain.

  8. Rosie B

    Of course it could be June 2010, but in reality would the latest not be May 6 2010, so they can do the locals on same day

    if not, having elections so close together will only damage the GOTV operation.

  9. richard

    It’s worth pointing out that Tom’s seat is one of the safest in the country which I presume explains his rather blasé attitude to election pressures…

  10. Zorro

    “As I say, it’s not rocket science. But it’s damn fine entertainment.”

    Oh yes, watching our economy, no our country, going down the pan in the hands of a freaking lunatic is /great/ fun.

    Tom, Any comments on the (socialist) German finance minister’s comments about the Dear Leader?

  11. wrinkled weasel

    (BTW your nomination for Labour Toady of the Year is in doubt since you were clearly not trusted to carry the Brown/Mandelson agenda forward and neither was your boss. Could it have any thing to do with you both being Christians? I am seriously considering withdrawing your nomination)

    Unlike recent tradition, Brown is hanging on to the very end, and even then I expect him to try and delay it. Morally (Mein Gott! – using the word moral and Brown in the same sentence!) morally, Brown should have gone to the country to endorse his Premiership. We know he was about to, but he bottled because he was told he would lose.

    My regard for him, in the light of this, is a little lower than the stuff I have to clear off the bottom of my Le Chameaus after cleaning out the Chicken House.

    No, it’s not Rocket Science, but boy, I shall open a bottle of Blue Nun when I watch him concede on election night, and I shall send you one if you lose.

  12. “Unlike recent tradition, Brown is hanging on to the very end, and even then I expect him to try and delay it.”

    Recent tradition? You mean when Major took over from Thatcher and immediately called a general election at the very last minute 18 months later?

    Or when Jim Callaghan took over from Wilson and called an election nearly three years later?

    Hmm, let me see, who else could be counted as “recent tradition”? Churchill, Eden and Macmillan – all Tories – were replaced during parliaments with none of their successors calling elections to “endorse” their premierships.

    This is such a red herring, Chris. Maybe you’ve been living abroad too long and have forgotten that we have a parliamentary system in the UK – not a presidential one. Any governing party can change its leader as often as it wishes – it is the party, not the leader, which is elected to govern, as both main parties have shown over the years.

  13. Rapunzel

    If Wrinkled Weasel is threatening to send you a bottle of Blue Nun, you’d better hope Gordon gets it right and chooses a date when he can win!

    Although, I gather Dave wants an election for Christmas.

  14. wrinkled weasel

    o.k. guvnor, you got me bang to rights. I was taking the michael and you caught me.

  15. Chris' Wills


    What did I write that brought that on!?

  16. Sorry, Chris – I was replying to Wrinkled Weasel, not you. My bad.

  17. Wrinkled Weasel

    Me?!! Living abroad? I live in Scotland, and it certainly feels like living abroad sometimes. Especially when I get asked, nearly every week since I moved up here, “Are you visiting”?

  18. Yeah, about that… see my apology at 7.53 – I got you and Chris Wills mixed up. Mea culpa.

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