Alan Watkins: The nation needs a new leader. The best means of finding one is a general election

Mr Brown should give the subject of Britishness a rest
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The Independent Online

From time to time, there comes about a great gap between what people think generally and what the politicians suppose at Westminster. Such a division now exists. It is about whether Mr Gordon Brown (or somebody else, though probably Mr Brown), should become Prime Minister without the prior intervention of a general election. Several factors have contributed to this mood.

One is that the Government has the smell of decay about it. In 1951, C R Attlee went to the country after 20 months, when he already had a small but adequate majority (though majorities were judged differently in those days). But ministers were exhausted, ill, dying or dead. They had already served for six years, twice that if you included the Coalition Government. Holding the election when he did was Attlee's single biggest misjudgement.

The circumstances today are different. It remains time for a change or, rather, for the voters to be allowed to express themselves.

Mr Tony Blair has won three elections fair and square. At any rate, he won them by large majorities, for the low turnout, and the deficiencies of the opposition made those victories perhaps less fair and not as perfectly square as they might have been, in an ideal universe. It might have been Mr Brown - perhaps it was Mr Brown - who was responsible for rendering Mr Blair less unpopular at the 2005 election. Even so, Mr Blair was still the leader who duly became Prime Minister for a third time.

In the 16 years since Sir John Major was imposed on the country as Prime Minister, there has been a change in public opinion. Various technological aids have made it much easier for people to express a view. In 1990, Douglas Hurd (one of the unsuccessful candidates) said that it was wrong for a party to depose a prime minister. Last month there was a wider echo of the call to depose Mr Blair and replace him with Mr Brown.

In short, people are suspicious of being told that the new Prime Minister will arrive from the clouds chosen by some obscure processes which few properly understand and are subject to manipulation by those who do understand the technicalities involved. In a perfect world, perhaps - the point is arguable - party leaders would be chosen by popular ballot. In a less perfect world, a general election would have to serve as the next best thing.

In 1955, Anthony Eden succeeded Winston Churchill with no fuss at all. He held an election in two months, not to seek approval as Churchill's successor, but because he thought he would win; as he duly proceeded to do, with an increased majority. In 1957, most people outside Westminster thought R A Butler should have become Prime Minister instead of Harold Macmillan; in 1963, they still thought it should have been Butler rather than Alec Douglas-Home.

For the entire period up to 1963, the office of Prime Minister was filled by means of a mixture of royal influence and party intrigue. Sometimes the incumbent was confirmed by a general election; on other occasions, as with James Callaghan in 1979, he was not.

Callaghan, however, was the first Prime Minister of either party to hold office after having won an internal election. This followed a straightforward contest in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour changed its system in 1981, and modified it further in 1993.

The second incumbent to go to No 10 after an internal election was Sir John. There has been a bewildering array of changes since then. Luckily, none of them has had to be put into practice since. After 1997, a whole succession of Tory leaders have come and gone without having had to raid the Government Art Collection for pictures to hang on the wall at No 10.

It is extraordinary, when you come to think about it, that the only Labour Prime Minister who assumed office mid-term was Callaghan. The second will, presumably, be Mr Brown.

It is profitless to speculate about what might be. I am far from being a voice crying in the wilderness. The mechanism is in place, it will be cranked up at some point in 2007, the wheels will grind and Mr Brown will be produced like one of those bars of Nestles chocolate from the machines in the railway-stations of my youth.

Around a decade ago, maybe longer, there was a favoured word in elevated political discourse, namely "legitimacy''. Does Mr Brown as Prime Minister have legitimacy? He has borne the heat and burden of the day. He has done the state some service in his time. But then, so had Butler and Denis Healey, and they did not become Prime Minister. Nor did Roy Jenkins and Sir Geoffrey Howe, who had been equally valuable to various administrations over the years.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that Mr Brown is a Scot. He occasionally makes speeches about Britishness. It is one of his recurring themes. I would give the subject a rest if I were in his position. For one thing, English nationalism has increased in the last decade, as all those St George's flags on football occasions serve to remind us. For another thing, Scotland is thought to possess its own privileges, including an assembly. Mr Brown, having become Prime Minister, might want to confirm his only legitimacy by means of a general election.

Mr Blair could yet take a hand. He could try to call an election off his own bat. I write "try to'' because the matter is by no means settled. In practice, however, it is. The sovereign dissolves Parliament when the Prime Minister of the day tells her (or him) to do so. No dissolution has been refused since the Reform Act of 1832, though various monarchs have shown a certain reluctance, even bad temper.

Another way of looking at things is that, even if the sovereign has no choice, the final authority is not the Prime Minister but the Cabinet. The Cabinet of Victorian times arrived at a collective decision. From the First World War onwards, the power to dissolve Parliament has been usurped by Downing Street.

Thus, in Sir John's troubles over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992-93, the Whips threatened to hold an election. The Cabinet replied: "We wouldn't have let him get halfway down the Mall.''

Similarly, a Blair Cabinet on its last legs might try to prevent the Prime Minister from trotting off to the Palace, to forestall any rash action to be undertaken by Mr Blair. Or perhaps not: for Mr Blair would still be in charge, just about. After all, Ramsay MacDonald called an election in 1931, and the Tories were effectively in power for 14 years.