Wednesday, September 27, 2006

British Politics: The rise or demise of Gordon Brown?

By James Stickings

There is an interesting article at The Guardian on a new opinion poll in Britain by GFK/NOP: 56% of those polled said they wanted an election within at least six months of Gordon Brown taking over as Prime Minister.

For those of you unfamiliar with the British political system, a new leader of the governing party automatically becomes the new prime minister, and he or she is not required to call a general election of Parliament until the statutory five-year time period since the last election is up. So John Major became Prime Minister in 1990 after winning the leadership of the Conservative Party after the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. He didn’t call an election until two years later.

It’s no surprise that the public seem to question this constitutional provision. For all that Major held his position legitimately and constitutionally, he led the government for two years without the explicit consent of the people given by victory at a general election. While it is true that he was effectively governing under the mandate given to Thatcher and the Conservatives at the 1987 election, the potential power of the modern prime minister – no longer merely primus inter pares of collective cabinet government but more and more a “presidential” figure – means that this situation fitted uncomfortably into an ostensibly democratic system until he went on to win the 1992 election in his own right.

So voters are right to demand that Gordon Brown, should he ever become prime minister, ought to seek a fresh mandate. The problem for Brown is that calling a general election so soon could mean defeat against a Conservative Party under David Cameron that is looking more and more like the alternative government that their current title “Her Majesty’s Official Opposition” implies. A
Guardian/ICM poll earlier in the week put Cameron ahead of Brown on a number of key questions, including who has more potential as prime minister (35% to 32%). One thing is for sure: Brown will not want his premiership to be merely a minor footnote between the Blair and Cameron years. The question for him, assuming he takes over from Blair (something which is by no means certain), will probably be how to balance this ambition with the British people’s desire for a say in the matter.

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