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.