A momentous day for Labour

Update (at 1406 on 30 Nov): The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn will give his MPs a free vote on the question of airstrikes over Syria. The commentary I posted below about the wider context stands, though obviously the central question has now been answered. It does give us some insight into Mr Corbyn’s leadership strategy and the extent to which he wishes to hold the party together:

Today Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet will wrestle with the thorny question of whether to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs over airstrikes in Syria.

Inevitably Mr Corbyn is against military action (as he has been against wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere). It seems that most of the Shadow Cabinet are in favour of the proposed airstrikes, along with a significant minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They could hold a free vote, allowing all Labour MPs to vote with their conscience.

Or they could whip the matter. There seems to be some confusion over whether (under Labour rules) a whipping decision lies in the hands of the Leader or the wider Shadow Cabinet.

If that authority lies with the Shadow Cabinet, and they decide to impose a whip in line with the judgement of the Shadow Cabinet (ie in favour of airstrikes), then Mr Corbyn would be placed under the absurd obligation to decide whether to fall in line (against his conscience) or resign from his own Shadow Cabinet. I think it is untenable that they would put Mr Corbyn in this position (elected as he was so recently and with with such a large mandate). Were they to do so, rather than resign, Mr Corbyn would have little option but disband his Shadow Cabinet and start again.

But Mr Corbyn is himself assuming the authority, as leader, on whether to whip his party. If he is able to do so, Shadow Cabinet members must either fall in line or resign. There is potential for multiple resignations if shadow ministers conclude they cannot back the leader who has rebelled against his own party 533 times since 1997.

Given Mr Corbyn’s own voting record, many MPs may feel they are not meaningfully bound by a three-line whip imposed by him.

The Government has a tiny parliamentary majority and there are a number of Conservative rebels – it could easily be defeated by a united opposition. But Labour is not united. There is every chance the Government could win a vote on its motion regardless of whether Labour grants a free vote or not.

Thus far, the Defence Secretary has played down the Government’s prospects of success, while he and others have been working to persuade Labour MPs one by one to support the Government motion. The Prime Minister does not want egg on his face, given fresh memories of his parliamentary knockdown on Syria in 2013.

Depending on how this plays out, this could be one of the most momentous weeks in the modern history of the Labour Party. In my view, the impact on the integrity of the party could be even greater than that of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September. However he proceeds, this will be a key factor in his decision.

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Seeking the lesser evil in Syria

Children. In agony, dying or already dead.

These were the most tragic victims of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on 21st August. They suffered unimaginably. According to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, 426 children were killed, along with 1,003 adults. That’s 1,429 dead, and many more treated for the effects of poison-gas.

Most of us will feel a natural emotional response to the suffering of children. Perhaps, as a new father, I feel that even more acutely than a year ago. My work involves dealing with breaking news video on the world’s headline stories. I make editorial decisions about what the BBC might broadcast on our TV news outlets. Filtering some of the most horrific images from those we actually broadcast on 21st August was traumatic to say the least.

Syrian flag

I feel angry about what happened. To see the bodies of small children should always stir strong feelings. What happened was unjust and we should not accept injustice. Something must be done.

Something must be done.

Yes, indeed. But what?

Much has been done already, but not external military intervention. There has been much chatter amongst world leaders and admonishment of Syria’s President Assad. Syrian rebels have been given diverse support and our collective distaste for the Assad regime has been expounded ad nauseum in the media.

Well over 100,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian civil war. And the killing goes on. None of the soft power wielded by Western nations or Syria’s allies (primarily Russia & Iran) seem to have made any difference to Assad’s attitude.

But his regime’s intensive use of chemical weapons crosses a Rubicon for the West. Syria is a full signatory to the Geneva Protocol established in 1925 (Syria signed in 1968). The massacre of innocent civilians is always wrong, but breaking the chemical weapons taboo is deemed to be a special wrong. They were last deployed by a state (by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) in the 1980s, both internally in Halabja and externally against Iran.

The assumption is that Assad or his generals were responsible for the chemical attacks in question. I have had my doubts. I remember feeling bewildered on 21st August. Knowing the outcry that chemical weapons would provoke, knowing it would constitute a ‘red line’ for President Obama, and having welcomed UN chemical weapons inspectors into his country just days previously, why would Assad deploy chemical weapons at such a time? Militarily, Syrian forces were regaining the upper hand in the conflict. Why threaten that with behaviour likely to provoke fury and resolve amongst powerful Western enemies? My immediate inclination was to assume a false flag operation by enemies of the regime (rebels or third parties).

Countering this, several Western governments (especially the USA, the UK and France) seem convinced of Assad’s guilt. John Kerry reports that “Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.” He also said the host rockets were launched “only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighbourhoods.”

I am in the fortunate position of not needing to judge President Assad’s guilt or innocence, but it is a critical question for those considering military action against Syria. Few seriously doubt that chemical attacks took place.

Something must be done. But if the trigger is Assad’s use of chemical weapons, we must be sure he was responsible. And if the ‘something’ that is done is to fire rockets into Syria then we need to be confident of a better outcome than if we do nothing, or if we do something else.

On Thursday evening, moments before MPs narrowly rejected a preliminary motion on military action, the BBC broadcast a horrifying report from northern Syria by its correspondent Ian Pannell. There were more images of dying children, this time victims of an incendiary bomb dropped on their school.

Parliamentarians would not have seen that report and Twitter was alive with the wisdom of those who were convinced it would have swayed them. It may well have done, but that would have been wrong-headed.

Anger should spur us to action, but emotions should not distort our judgement. We may be inspired by our hearts, but we should make decisions with a cool head. All the more reason to sleep on important decisions before committing to them.

After Thursday’s vote, the Prime Minister almost immediately ruled out British military action in Syria.

I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.
(David Cameron, Thursday 29th August 2013)

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t what parliament called for and while in the moment it seemed magnanimous, with hindsight it seems rash. The body of evidence against Assad has evolved since the vote took place, and the weight of opinion inside parliament would only have to shift by 7 votes to change the outcome. However, the PM’s stance has since been reaffirmed – in even clearer language – by senior ministers including the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister. Nick Clegg said the Government would not return to Parliament with “the same question on the same issue in response to the same atrocity”.

In a microscopic change of tone, this afternoon, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons that “Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless circumstances change very significantly.” The hidden implication is that another vote is indeed possible.

I am not arguing for military action in Syria. Nor against it. I’m simply pointing out that the question seems to have been abandoned by David Cameron on a whim, apparently (perhaps wilfully) misjudging the will of parliament. My perception, from watching the debate, is that while many MPs were unconvinced; few were resolutely opposed to military intervention.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, he recalled Parliament only after consulting the Leader of the Opposition, who apparently pledged his support for the motion before adding caveats later. I cannot see the question being revisited until and unless Ed Miliband takes the initiative to call for it and signal Labour’s support.

Meanwhile what of the other P5 nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council?

China seems agnostic, likely unwilling to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It is what might be called a self-interested point of principle.

Russia (an ally of Syria) described the chemical attack accusations against Syria as ‘absurd’.

The presidents of the United States and France will both seek legislative approval before committing military resources.

Whatever, if any, military action there is against Syria, it will be a ‘coalition of the willing’, reminiscent of Iraq. This will be no UN-sponsored adventure, despite the UN Secretary-General’s acknowledgement there should be “no impunity” for the wielders of chemical weapons.

But UN-backing is a lesser order issue. More important that the judgement is correct, and in such a complex question, it is no surprise that Presidents Obama and Hollande are also seeking political cover for their decisions.

For the perpetrator of atrocities, there must be ‘no impunity’. Something must be done. On the question of military action, it may be argued that it is a necessary evil. In this case, inaction is also an evil. Neither option is necessary, but the question cannot be ducked.

This is no Hobson’s Choice. Both options are real and both carry difficult consequences.

Which is the lesser evil?

Let us pray that those with the power to act get this judgement right.

A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

Expenses – the new system

There is a new system for MPs’ expenses. Like many of us, I took some interest in the expenses scandal when it first broke and suggested some of my own ideas for how the new rules should look. I also recognised how I might have fallen foul of the rules at the time.

The changes are sensible and worthwhile. See here how the new rules stack up against the old ones.

It’s good to see the maximum accomodation allowance cut from £2,000 per month to £1,450. I suggested £1,200 would be enough for a decent one bedroom flat in central London, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is more generous.

MPs won’t be able to use their allowance to pay for mortgage interest, so it excludes property investment from taxpayer-funded expenses. It wasn’t among my suggestions, but it’s an appropriate response to the public outrage.

In November, Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations included a ban on MPs employing relatives. Derek Conway was the primary abuser of this tradition, but I didn’t agree with a ban. An MP’s work is so demanding, in terms of both time and geography, it seems reasonable that spouses (spice?) should be allowed to work alongside them. Eve Burt is one MP’s wife who felt this very strongly, campaigning vigorously to keep her job! IPSA has wisely conceded that MPs may continue to employ one family member.

It is good to see that MPs must now submit receipts for all claims. As I argued last year, MPs should only be reimbursed for expenses actually incurred. if they consider it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.

My Confession

I have a confession. Once upon a time, I underpaid my service charge for almost two years. I don’t remember the precise details, but I think I was paying about £27 per month when I should have been paying £100 per month. This lasted about 20 months.

I had been paying what I was asked to pay and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Sound familiar?

When my landlord informed me that I needed to start paying my latest bill, along with arrears of £1,500, I was very angry. Why? Because they had my direct debit instruction and I expected them to take care of my payments.

I shouldn’t have left the matter entirely to my landlord, no more than many MPs should have left the decisions on their expenses entirely to the fees office.

For me there are some awkward questions to answer:

  • Q. Did I know how much my service charge was?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £1,200.
  • Q. Did I know how much I was paying my landlord?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £27 per month.
  • Q. (in the style of Jeremy Paxman) Did it never occur to me that I was systematically paying less than a third of what I owed?
    A. No, it didn’t. Honestly, Mr Paxman, it really never occurred to me until almost two years had passed.

I was mighty angry when I realised I’d been allowed to fall so far behind. Not with myself. I was angry with the landlord. My error should have been spotted earlier. Or, as I still maintain, they should have adjusted my direct debit to match their bill.

I was a little angry with myself, but only just.

I expect a lot of MPs are feeling a similar frustration. Some of them were knowingly milking the system for all it was worth, but others were taking only what they believed they were honestly entitled to. They did not expect the fees office to pay more than this.

The fees office has tended to govern expenses by the letter of the rules. There are some cases where claims have been refused for breaching the spirit of the rules, but they are few and far between.

Personally, I believe I would ruthlessly obey the letter of the rules. Any failure on this would be a genuine oversight. But what right do I have to judge MPs for their adherence or otherwise to the spirit of the rules? The tone of my article on The Thieves of Westminster clearly does.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(Luke 6v41)

So what is my ‘plank’? Under the expenses system, I would no doubt have been tempted by certain financial scenarios.

I have some sympathy for Francis Maude’s indulgence. After a series of expenses negotiations, he eventually bought a second second home in London because he could not claim any allowance on either his first second home nearby (which he owned outright), or his main home in Horsham (which he still had a mortgage on).

He has been criticised for this behaviour and, along with other members of the Shadow Cabinet, ordered by David Cameron to stop claiming expenses on the mortgage interest.  In the current climate, that is probably the right decision, but I fear that in Mr Maude’s position, I too may have done the same.

This week I’ve been wondering about the case for an immediate election. I hadn’t imagined it would be something Mr Brown would favour, but perhaps the call to do so would become impossible to ignore. However, I have changed my mind. I do not believe an election in the near future would be a good idea.

The public do need to have their say on every apple in the Commons, rotten or otherwise. But the dust needs to settle, and perhaps the MPs deserve a real opportunity to explain themselves to their electorates.

Some MPs do deserve to be turfed out, but not all of them, or even most of them. The trouble is, there is now a widespread perception that “they’re all at it”. I don’t believe that’s true. I do think that these revelations have been valuable, but we need to allow some time to pass before we pass judgement on the defendants. We need to understand more clearly who deserves our wrath and who doesn’t.

So, as I recently suggested, the election is still almost a year away. I believe we need the time between now and then to grasp some perspective on what we’ve learned.

The Thieves of Westminster

Sometimes my wife and I read chunks of the newspaper out to each other as we find interesting titbits. Yesterday I bought the Sunday Telegraph and marvelled at the number of pages devoted to the expenses of our elected representatives. And that was after the Telegraph had devoted Friday and Saturday to the issue too. It’s back in the paper yet again today! It’s all on this link if you want to read all about it.

As I read through the allegations, I found myself reading out almost every other paragraph to Vanessa, such was my fascination with the moral dungeon some MPs have stooped into.

I don’t object to MPs receiving a decent salary, but I think some of them fail to recognise that £64,766 is a pretty reasonable level of remuneration.

We shouldn’t ask them to work for peanuts, and indeed we don’t. Their salary is plenty enough for elected representatives working in public service. It’s not like the market would create a higher salary. Hundreds of people are eager to become an MP, for every one who makes it into office. Indeed, if MPs’ salaries were defined by supply and demand, they’d probably work for free. But in that scenario only the rich could afford to represent us and avoid penury.

It is true that many (though perhaps not all) MPs could earn more outside parliament. Indeed, some of them do earn more in their part-time jobs. But aside from their moonlighting, they have chosen a noble path and should swap their personal financial ambition for higher ideals.

£65k is only their base salary. Aside from their generous expenses, there are a range of ways MPs can earn more:

  • If their constituency is in London, they get London weighting.
  • The Prime Minister, his secretaries of state, their ministers and their parliamentary under secretaries all get a salary supplement.
  • The Leader of the Opposition, his whips, the Speaker, his deputies and Select Committee chairmen also receive a supplement.

So I really don’t buy the argument that expenses are in some way a substitute for a decent salary. The salary is fine, and as the Speaker has argued, MPs should not just “work to the rules”, but consider “the spirit of what is right”. In the meantime, it’s clear that many MPs’ application of the rules shows so little regard for the spirit of them that one wonders whether the needle in their collective moral compass has been installed back-to-front.

Under the circumstances, it would seem wise to ignore the moral compass and just get the rules right. Michael Martin is finding himself isolated from voters and even most MPs in his witch-hunt of the leaker, but he accepts that “serious change” is needed. The Committee for Standards in Public Life is working on this, but it won’t be bounced into rushing the process. As the chairman says, the “issues are not simple”. What kind of issues are they? What should they be considering? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Expenses should be accurate, not generous.
  • Money should be paid to reimburse expenses actually incurred in the course of an MP’s work.
  • No individual needs to spend £400 per month for groceries in their ‘second’ home. What are they eating? Perhaps caviar omelettes for breakfast and organic truffles spiced with saffron for dinner. This needs considerable revision!
  • An MP could rent a decent one-bedroom flat in central London for £1,200 per month. If something grander is desired, so be it, but £1,200 towards rent, mortgage interest or hotel rooms is plenty, in London or elsewhere.
  • Repairs and maintenance are a personal matter which the Commons authorities should not interfere with. But if an MP needs to extend their mortgage to pay for repairs, the authorities could cover the interest payments provided they do not exceed £1,200pm.
  • An MP should be asked to designate their ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ homes at the beginning of a parliamentary term. Any desire to change this should be considered by an independent panel. The request and decision should be a matter of public record.
  • A fixed grant at the begining of an MP’s tenure could be paid to cover special expenses, such as furniture. This could be equal to a month’s salary (£5,397). It would be taxable, but any actual expenses the MP incurs would be tax deductable with HMRC. NB: MPs already receive a 3-month severance payment when they retire (or are turfed out) as an MP.
  • What MPs tell the Commons authorities about their living arrangements should be consistent with what they tell HMRC. It should also be consistent with reality!
  • All expenses should be receipted. If an MP considers it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.

The information revealed in recent days is – in my view – a credit to the Telegraph. It wasn’t cheap, perhaps £100k, but it was probably a bargain given how much the paper has milked it. But the other cost lies within the risk of libel action, which must be considerable. Was it wrong to publish? I think not, given the widespread concern about so many MPs. Some of them have difficult questions to answer, and the truth will hurt them. But others have innocent reasons linked to their curious expenses.

Corrupt to the core?
Corrupt to the core?

I don’t doubt for a moment the Prime Minister’s probity in connection with the £6k cleaning bill paid to his brother. But many voters will judge him harshly for it. If he is innocent, then the taxpayers’ frustration is unfair. But the situation is perhaps more unfair on his brother Andrew, whose family has borne the brunt of sniping comments from acquaintances. Andrew’s wife Clare has written about her frustration over the whole issue.

There have been awkward questions for the Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove who’s been accused of ‘flipping’ his second home. Mr Gove has given a robust defence to the most serious charges, but shows welcome contrition on some minor points.

I believe Mr Brown and Mr Gove are among many whose expenses may not look good, but who are (generally) above board. They will be annoyed about how their expenses have been portrayed, but I believe it will be good for them. At this stage, the situation is so severe, the public mistrust so widespread, that it is time for every MP to face the charges and mount their defence. One by one, they ought to take that opportunity to clear their name. The BBC has outlined the key charges and responses currently in the public domain. Check it out and judge for yourself. In my view, some MPs will need to mount a better defence than claim they acted “within the rules”.

The whole affair enhances the appeal of an early election. The Prime Minister’s authority is already weak. It would be a disaster if all remaining authority in the House of Commons is also allowed to drip away. That is what appears to be happening now. If there is to be no general election in the near future, I would like to see a swathe of resignations and by-elections. I doubt it will happen, but something must be done to stop the rot.

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.