Alan Watkins: Why stay until evicted, Mr Brown?

Cabinet ministers are rebellious and may prefer a dignified exit in October to an out-and-out drubbing
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For the past week, the expensive papers of a progressive disposition have been full of suggestions about the way for Labour to win the election – or, at any rate, not to lose it too ignominiously. For his part, Mr David Cameron tells us that a Conservative victory is not to be taken as automatic. He and his party have to work for it, or to appear to work.

Can the politicians and their attendant hangers-on (of whom I am one) keep this up for a whole year and more? The present Parliament can last until June 2010, for the rules provide for an extra month in the five-year span. But for how much longer can the electorate put up with Mr Gordon Brown?

I do not want to indulge in what the libel lawyers call vulgar abuse: far from it. We can safely leave that sort of thing to Mr Cameron, who called Mr Brown "a complete phoney" at Prime Minister's Questions, and was rightly compelled by Mr Speaker to withdraw the word – though it was, in my view, a borderline case.

Again, Leaders of the Opposition commonly demand a general election when the Government is in trouble. It is part of their stock-in-trade, par for the course. That does not mean that the Prime Minister has to take any notice. It is better to treat the demand with what the late George Brown once called a complete ignoral, and prime ministers usually treat it so.

Besides, it is the Prime Minister's function – it could be argued his or her duty – to go to the country at a time of greatest party advantage. There are numerous exceptions. In 1951 C R Attlee had no real expectation of winning and more or less gave up, on account of illnesses and a small majority. In February 1974 Edward Heath had a perfectly good majority and threw it away after three and a half years.

Prime ministers who have stuck it out for the full term have included Alec Douglas-Home in 1964 who, to most people's surprise, came within four seats of Harold Wilson. James Callaghan would probably have gone on till autumn 1979 if he had not been defeated in a vote of confidence. Michael Foot, effectively Callaghan's deputy, had worked out an ingenious wheeze to have the vote reversed, so enabling the Government to continue to October. But Jim had had enough of it and accepted the narrow verdict of the House.

The most recent Prime Minster to go the full term was John Major in 1997. As he won the election unexpectedly in 1992, after serving for almost two years before that, he ranks as one of our longest-serving prime ministers. History has not been kind to Sir John. At least he did not start any wars. Well before the election, he had lost his majority. The delay in calling the election almost certainly increased Mr Tony Blair's majority.

That may be a consideration to be borne in mind if Mr Brown goes on and on, as he looks like doing. The voters may become increasingly angry with the Government. There are, however, more exalted reasons for Mr Brown to have an election.

One is that, by the middle of the year, the Government will have held office for four years. To put off the date till the autumn would be perfectly respectable. Indeed, despite recent precedents, in Labour circles October is seen as the traditional, somehow the correct, month in which to have an election.

Who knows? In these disturbed times, the old ways may be returning to favour.

The other reason is that the times clearly are disturbed. Neither of the parties has succeeded in catching the troubled spirit of the age. Occasionally, it is true, a strange movement unsettles the national waters.

One such was the "I'm backing Britain" campaign. Does anyone still remember it? A small group of office workers in Surbiton – for why should the workers be any less patriotic in Surbiton than anywhere else? – proclaimed their intention to work extra time for no pay. The cause was quickly taken up by the late Robert Maxwell and soon forgotten.

Then there was "The Spirit of John Smith" following Smith's sad but not wholly unexpected death in 1994. For about four days the politicians, egged on by the papers, were urged to be nice to one another; after which, normal hostilities were resumed as if nothing had happened. Quite why this jovial, able, somewhat cynical politician was saddled with all kinds of virtues which did not belong to him remains a mystery. But so it was.

Equally strange, in its way, was Mr Brown's "Government of All the Talents" formed on his accession in the summer of 2007. It was difficult to know who was a member of the administration and who was not. It remains even harder today to identify who is still on board, has jumped ship, or was never a passenger in the first place. Mr Brown's object was not to give a helping hand to national unity but to embarrass the other parties, in which he only partly succeeded.

Mr Cameron tried to play the national unity card during the party conference season of 2008. A year previously, he and Mr George Osborne had inaugurated Mr Brown's year of horror with Mr Osborne's promise on inheritance tax and Mr Brown's cancellation of the general election.

With the collapse of the financial system a year later, and Mr Cameron knowing less than Mr Brown about the appropriate noises to make, the Tories had to promise the Government to give any help they could. Once again, the new spirit – it was never wholly clear whether it was reciprocated by Mr Brown – lasted only a few days.

The rational course is to have an election, not immediately, but before the end of the year, and before winter sets in. But who ever thought that politics was rational? By May 2010, Mr Brown will have served for as long as Callaghan and Neville Chamberlain, longer than Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Anthony Eden, Douglas-Home and Andrew Bonar Law.

It is not, I grant you, a spectacularly long period of service. And prime ministers are usually judged by the length of their spell in No 10 rather than by what they did in the time available to them. For instance, I have always felt Campbell-Bannerman underestimated by the history books. But at least Mr Brown will have had a fair chance; it may be too fair a chance.

There is also a swell which creates the weather. It does not lie solely with Mr Brown whether to call an election. It has become part of constitutional mythology that the power to call an election – or, as Harold Macmillan used to insist, to advise the Sovereign to call an election – rests with the Prime Minister alone. Historically, the Cabinet has been able to overrule the Prime Minister, whether to have an election or not to have one.

The present evidence is that the members of the Cabinet are more rebellious than they used to be, certainly more so than they were in Mr Blair's reign. You might think they would want to hang on to their jobs. I am not so sure about that. They might prefer to retire with honour when there is still time.