Laws on the ropes?

David is… Mr Integrity. Integrity is the thing that drives him. I believe that he may have been caught, in a way, in the imprecise nature of the word ‘partnership’. The word is used in the House of Commons regulations… I think in good faith he concluded that it did not apply to him.
(Lord Ashdown, David Laws’ predecessor as Yeovil MP)

I have some personal sympathy for David Laws. What a month it has been. He was still campaigning for re-election at the beginning of the month. He didn’t expect then to help negotiate the first coalition government for 65 years. He didn’t expect to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He didn’t expect some of his closest friends and family to learn he was gay.

Now the Daily Telegraph suggests he broke parliamentary rules by claiming second home expenses to rent a room from his partner, James Lundie. Mr Laws’ defence is that Mr Lundie was not a ‘partner’ under the expenses rules.

He did not want his relationship revealed. He and Mr Lundie “are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.”

How frustrating these revelations must be for him. But as the expenses saga unfolded last year, surely every MP must have considered how their own circumstances might have appeared under close scrutiny. It was clear they would be judged by their adherence to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules.

Mr Laws says he will pay back £40,000 and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.  Surely it would have been prudent to refer himself last year? Surely that must have occurred to him last year? It may not have prevented the Telegraph uncovering the story, but it might have taken some of the steam out of it.

Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg have a rather awkward situation to deal with. In theory it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide Mr Laws’ fate. But perhaps he will delegate the problem to his deputy. David Laws is a Lib Dem; he is Mr Clegg’s problem.

If he goes, would he have to be replaced by a Lib Dem? Or could he be replaced from either coalition party? It is an important question for the coalition. I suspect that resignations such as this (if it occurs) may often need to be followed by a minor reshuffle.

The pressure on Mr Laws will be all the greater for his ministerial responsibility. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury it is his job to wield the axe on public spending. His expenses claims may detract from his moral authority in one of the most crucial jobs in government.

Update: David Laws has resigned from the Cabinet. He is replaced by the Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, perceived as a more awkward fit than Mr Laws. As the Times describes it: “Coalition wobbles in bid to keep its balance.”

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A triumph of tradition over truth?

The front-bench MPs have been sworn into Parliament. Others will follow. All but one member of the Cabinet took the religious form of the oath:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true alliegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (a professed atheist) took the secular oath:

I do solemnly, sincerely and most and affirm I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.

Many Labour front-benchers followed Mr Clegg’s example. David Miliband, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Bob Ainsworth and John Denham all affirmed their allegiance to the Queen.

So are we to conclude the Government is Godly and Her Majesty’s Opposition is mainly Godless? I would be surprised, in this secular age, if every Cabinet member swearing the relgious oath really believed in the God by whom they swore.

It is, perhaps, a triumph of tradition over truth.

But many cabinet ministers certainly do profess a believe in God. David Cameron is a regular church-goer. William Hague has called himself a “committed Christian”. Caroline Spelman is a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith are Catholics. Baroness Warsi is a Muslim. No doubt there are others.

But are they any more right to swear the oath than the others?

Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
(Matthew 5v34-37)

Surely a conundrum for some believing MPs. I found it interesting to observe that Simon Hughes, a professed Christian, chose to take the secular oath. There may have been others.

A night to forget?

My General Election prediction was wide of the mark. The result is far more complicated and very unsatisfactory for any party seeking a workable coalition.

For many, this was a night to forget

It was no great surprise, but Gordon Brown has lost the election. He will not survive as Prime Minister for very long.

David Cameron has fallen too far short of an overall majority to seize the reins of power by default.

Nick Clegg has not enjoyed the breakthrough he might have expected. His negotiating strength will be limited.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, has lost the seat he held for 31 years.

The SNP hoped for 20 seats. It has repeated its 2005 haul of just six seats.

The Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest until less than a decade ago, has failed to win a single seat. A disappointment for both the UUP and David Cameron.

It was a very bad night for Nick Griffin (BNP), George Galloway (Respect) and Nigel Farage (UKIP), the latter of whom must reflect on his performance from his hospital bed. They each fell short of victory, and must settle for bronze.

There were just a few successes

Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavillion for the Green Party. Its first ever seat and a major breakthrough.

The NI Alliance Party won East Belfast; Naomi Long took the seat at Peter Robinson’s expense (or due to Mr Robinson’s expenses?) Another first; another major breakthrough.

Plaid Cymru gained one seat.

With such wide variations from the average national swing, many new MPs will be proud of their own individual successes.

And the voters?

Many voters were unable to vote and are very angry. But the rest of us have got the government we deserve. Or at least we might get it, eventually.

For many, this was a night to forget. But it will be remembered for a very long time.

This time next week, anyone could be our Prime Minister. Let the negotiations begin.

Reliving 1992

It’s getting close. The election is soon, and the gap between the two main parties is narrow. Various opinion polls give the Conservatives a slim majority over Labour. In some cases it’s just two percentage points. For the Conservatives, a two point lead is not enough for an overall majority. It may not even win them more seats than Labour.

Labour could be in a position to form a minority/coalition government despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. This is because Labour dominates in urban constituencies with smaller electorates. So the seats it wins are often secured with fewer votes. It’s a real possibility the Conservatives could win more votes but fewer seats in the forthcoming election. Indeed, in 2005, in England, that’s just what happened.

As an aside, the Liberal Democrats are wrestling with the conundrum of a hung parliament in which Labour secures more seats and the Conservatives, more votes. They say the party with the strongest mandate has the right to govern. But Nick Clegg won’t say whether that means the party with most seats or the most votes. It leaves him some wriggle room.

Election day, 1992

So the Conservatives are ahead in the opinion polls, but each party has all to play for. It reminds me of 1992 and there are a number of similar features.

  • In 1992, the Conservatives had been in office for 13 years. Margaret Thatcher, an inspirational but controversial figure had led her party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and her own party. She stood aside mid-term to be replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has been in office for 13 years. Tony Blair, an inspirational but controversial figure led his party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and his own party. He stood aside mid-term to be replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
  • In 1992, Labour has been 13 years in opposition. In the early years it  swung sharply to the left and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, Neil Kinnock, had worked hard to change the party and its brand. By 1992, it had been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • Now in 2010, the Conservatives have been 13 years in opposition. In the early years they swung sharply to the right and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, David Cameron, has worked hard to change the party and its brand. Now it has been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • In 1992, the Conservative had won three general elections. When they first came to power, they succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Labour government. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. She called each of her elections after four years. Her successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has won three general elections. When it first came to power, it succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Conservative government. Tony Blair was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. He called each of his elections after four years. His successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • In 1992, the economy was in recovery from a nasty recession, but Black Wednesday lay ahead.
  • Now in 2010, the economy is in recovery from an even nastier recession, but I have no doubt further challenges lie ahead.

Of course, there are some differences too. For example:

  • In 1992, the incumbent Prime Minister was still relatively new to the voters. He’d served as Foreign Secretary for four months, Chancellor for 13 months and Prime Minister for 18 months before election day.
  • Now in 2010, the incumbent has served 18 years at the highest levels of opposition or government. Mr Brown is well-known.
  • In 1992, interest rates were 10% (on election day). They had fallen steadily from a peak of 15% in 1989.
  • Now in 2010, interest rates are just 0.5%. That is as low as they have ever been.

But there is another critical similarity:

  • In 1992, the incumbent party won a late surge in support.
  • Now in 2010, that is happening again.

In 1992, the incumbent party won.

Politics was not well-served by the re-election of the Conservatives in 1992. They were tolerated, not loved, but the voters couldn’t face the prospect of Labour returning to power. Five years on and the governing party was about as popular as a rat at a hen do.

It has taken many years and a substantial change in tone and focus for voters to come to terms with the Conservatives again. But that last term in office did them great harm. Labour is tolerated, not loved, but the voters are very nervous about the Conservatives returning to power.

Now in 2010?

Against expectations, Labour could remain in government until 2015. If that happens, I predict a landslide the other way, just like 1997. 18 years in government is a very long time. By 2015, it will be a very tired government.

In any case, the next five years are going to be very difficult. The next government will have some very tough economic decisions to take. It cannot risk the politics of popularity. It must govern in the national interest.

For the next government, Labour or Conservative, the election of 2014/15 is going to be very tough indeed.

When is E-Day?

Much has been said about when the general election might be. Well-informed tongues began wagging ahead of the Labour conference in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first as Prime Minister. Should he call a snap election to consolidate his authority? As leader of the underdogs, David Cameron’s challenge was to frighten the PM and force a rethink. He was helped by some clever politicking by his Shadow Chancellor. In the end, there was no election and it became clear Mr Brown would aim to see out the mandate won by Tony Blair in 2005.

Today is four years on. Each of the previous two elections were held after four years (or thereabouts). Both of Margaret Thatcher’s re-elections were held after four years, but John Major held off until the five year mark on both occasions.

When might Mr Brown see fit to go to the country? My view is that the election will take place on 6th May 2010, one year tomorrow. The argument for this precise date is put succinctly and effectively by James Forsyth in the Spectator last week. Basically, we know the local elections will be held that day and he doesn’t think it will happen before then or afterwards.

6th May 2010 is (a day) more than five years. It surprised me to learn recently that the general election could take place more than five years after the previous one. But apparently so; it happened most recently in 1997. Parliament is elected for a five year term, after which the timetable for the next general election is set in motion automatically.

In practice, the Prime Minister normally requests a dissolution from the Monarch before this point, but it’s not necessary. An election next year could happen as late as 3rd June, or two weeks later if the Queen dies after she’s summoned a new parliament. But as James Forsyth explains, 6th May would seem to be the most likely date. 

Westminster
The Mother of Parliaments

Mr Brown has faced much flak for his failure to go to the country early to secure a personal mandate. He was criticised, partly because probably he would have won; but the philosophical reason is arguably more important. Had he sought the consent of the British people to govern, he could more easily point his critics to this and move on.

He also lacks a mandate from his party. His elevation to the premiership was something of an appointment by inevitability. Labour MPs knew Mr Brown would be their next  leader, so the vast majority of them pledged their support. Two challengers emerged, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, but neither could secure enough support (45 MPs) to force Mr Brown to face a wider vote.

So Mr Brown has neither a mandate from his party nor from the British people. His only real democratic authority comes from his constituency in Scotland. This reality harms him when he faces other challenges to his authority. So if he is replaced any time soon, would his successor call a snap election? I don’t think so.

All parties are ready for an election at any time. At least they should be. Even the party of government should be ready for when its leader decides it’s time to go to the country. Only the Prime Minister knows when he will do that, but his chief lieutenants must have a campaign plan ready at all times.

So, along with the others, Mr Cameron’s party is ready, Mr Clegg’s party is ready, and Mr Brown’s party is ready. But if Mr Brown is deposed, his party would no longer be ready to fight.

A new commander would need time to marshal his forces. He (or she) would need to draw up his own battle plan. A personal leadership vision would not be enough. A manifesto for government and an effective campaign to sell this message to the voters would take time to draw up. And in the midst of a crisis, the voters may not forgive any prime minister who decided to focus on electioneering instead of governing. The voters know the election will come soon enough. I believe they would rather wait for it, particularly if a key leader was unknown to them.

For Gordon Brown, it was different. He had ten years to prepare for the premiership, and the voters knew who he was. So he could have called a snap election. His replacement would be a fool to do so, particularly if the opinion polls remain stable.

The county council and European elections are on 4th June. This will be a key test. A good day for Labour will possibly settle the leadership question for now. But a bad day will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister. If he steps down, it will happen in June. A new leader would not be in place until, probably, August. At the earliest, a snap election could take place in September. But I suggest this will not happen.

I believe that, at the best of times, a new leader would want to wait at least three months before calling the election; perhaps even six months in the current economic climate. By that logic, an election would not take place before April. In that case, he might as well wait until 6th May, if only for the prospect of better weather. I believe the governing party benefits from a sunny day and Labour, in particular, benefits from a decent turnout.

But what is the likelihood of Mr Brown being turfed out now? I think it is slim. There is plenty of speculation about the leadership, but the next leader of the party will not want to begin a term in opposition after a crushing electoral defeat. Better to allow Mr Brown to take the hit. The circumstances of a stable overall majority for Labour are difficult to envisage; any victory is likely to be akin to John Major’s 21-seat majority of 1992 which had dwindled to precisely zero by 1997.

Who would want to take the helm during this storm? A caretaker, just for now, is a possibility. After all, if the skipper has lost command of his vessel, his crew must either step up or face doom. But if a caretaker is needed, Gordon Brown might as well stay on. For this purpose, he’s probably as good as anyone. The pretenders will recognise this soon. Expect them to close ranks almost immediately; certainly before the elections on 4th June. Watch the rats abandon ship in the year ahead (to a range of parties and some as independents), but Captain Brown will remain on the bridge.

A week is a long time in politics.
(Harold Wilson)

One might suppose that a year is somewhat longer. We will have to see that year out to understand what history reveals. But my prediction is this: the three main party leaders will all fight the next general election and the campaign will culminate on 6th May next year. One year tomorrow.