Alan Watkins: Voters always dislike needless elections

Did Gordon Brown remember the long line of British prime ministers who have gone to the country early and lost the keys to No 10?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a long time now, a natural phenomenon has been observable in the Conservative Party. Sometimes it becomes quiescent, like a volcano. At other periods the rumbling goes on for years. It usually lasts from spring or early summer to the party conference at the beginning of October. It may be called Phoenix-from-the-Ashes. Edward Heath was particularly subject to this phenomenon, as was John Major; Margaret Thatcher was relatively free of it.

So, we are told, the leader's position is in question; there are grumbles in the party; he has to make the speech of his life; he duly has an oratorical triumph; he is acclaimed as master of his party; and then there is a period of calm. Last week, Mr David Cameron conformed to the pattern.

On this occasion, however, there was a complicating factor, which was the general election. By calling off the election, Mr Gordon Brown gives the impression that Mr Cameron has messed up his plans or, at any rate, caused him to view them in a more cautious light. This is almost a reversal of the position which had developed over the past three months.

Mr Brown was being written up, while Mr Cameron was being talked down. At the end of the week, there was the evidence of the polls, for what it was worth, that Mr Cameron had gone up, and Mr Brown down. As far as Mr Cameron is concerned, this is almost certainly the effect of being on television all the time. But then, Mr Brown was on tele-vision, visiting our brave boys in Basra, which does not seem to have done him much good.

This trip was condemned as a cynical ploy to distract our attention from the Conservative conference and to prepare the way for a general election, while announcing a troop reduction which was not as large as had originally been claimed and had in any case been announced before.

I am prepared to give the Prime Minister the benefit of any doubts that may be lying around and to conclude that he was doing his duty by paying his first prime ministerial visit to Iraq in the span between his own party conference and the reassembly of Parliament.

So far, Mr Brown has managed to avoid the suspicion of his motives which used to be attached to Mr Tony Blair's every action; with a certain amount of justification, I must confess. In the last week, however, Mr Brown is being looked on as just another politician. This is what he has always been – he has never made any secret of it – but to some people it has come as something of a shock to the system.

There were two other factors which fortified the impression that he was, after all, a politician. One was that he was trying to exploit a political advantage – or, till last week's polls, what was seen to be a political advantage – and to call an election which was not necessary and which the voters did not want.

The other, connected factor was that he was playing games with the voters. James Callaghan's halting rendition of an old music-hall song at the TUC conference in 1978 undoubtedly damaged him not only with the brothers from the branches but with the voters at large.

It is certainly arguable that, after a change of Prime Minister in mid-term, a general election should be held. It was Mr Blair who the country elected, not Mr Brown. After the fall of Lady Thatcher, Douglas Hurd (one of the candidates to succeed her) maintained that it was wrong for a Prime Minister to be got rid of in this way, without any intervention on the part of the electorate.

Constitutional innovations have been much on Mr Brown's mind, but this does not appear to have been one of them. It would naturally have been gratifying personally for Mr Brown to win a mandate – a favourite Old Labour word, "mandate", – but it would have been more gratifying still for Labour to have five more years in office.

And yet, Mr Brown still has almost three years at No 10 before being compelled to go to the country. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin had six months before having an election, longer than the four months Mr Brown was considering .

Baldwin had a majority of over 70. He went to the country against the wishes of George V and most of the Cabinet. It was over the introduction of tariffs. Baldwin wanted to put the question to the people. Some historians have suggested that his real motive was to ditch David Lloyd George. But this is largely speculation. In the event, he lost the election and Ramsay MacDonald formed the minority Labour government. Baldwin survived as Leader and returned as Prime Minister later in 1924.

The difference between then and now is that Baldwin had an issue; whereas Mr Brown has no comparable point of division. In 1951, C R Attlee held an election after 18 months. The majority was six, ministers were tired, two of them were dying. Attlee more or less gave up.

Anthony Eden's position was more nearly comparable to that of Mr Brown. In April 1955, Eden succeeded Winston Churchill. Six weeks later, he held an election largely on the advice of the party apparatchiks and increased the Conservative majority. The tragedy of Suez came later.

Harold Wilson has perhaps had an unfair press lately. Certainly he lost the 1970 election when everyone, Wilson included, thought he was going to win it. But the Parliament had lasted for well over four years. It was a choice between summer and autumn. The spring of 1971, the latest available time for an election, was eliminated completely because of the introduction of decimalisation in February and its supposed malign effects.

Whereas Heath had, surprisingly, won, he went on to lose in the same way. Like Baldwin, he had an issue, or a supposed issue, Who Governs Britain? Not you mate, came the reply. Norman St-John Stevas, then a junior minister, asked the more senior William Whitelaw why Heath had to hold an election, when there was a long time to run and he already had a perfectly adequate parliamentary majority. "We'll be in an entirely different ball game," Whitelaw remarked sapiently.

Mr Brown's supporters, or his former supporters, in the early-election stakes give forth a similar cry. Things will somehow be different, in various unspecified ways. Heath called an unnecessary election, and lost it. So did Attlee and Baldwin call unnecessary elections. Wilson's 1970 election could not have been called unnecessary, though he lost it. The parliament in which Eden was made Prime Minister was already in its fourth year when the election was called; Mr Brown was last elected an MP in 2005.

Till yesterday, there was apprehension in the air on both sides, on all sides, if you counted the Lib Dems. In 1992, we some of us remember, the Labour opposition lost unexpectedly. The members of the defeated party consoled themselves with the reflection that this was a good election to lose. The Tories might have had to comfort themselves with the same thought. They may have had a lucky escape.