When does a government forfeit the moral right to govern? It is a question that has an uncomfortable relevance in Britain today. Labour emerged from the 2005 general election with a solid, if unspectacular, mandate to govern Britain. Yet that mandate has been draining away at an alarming rate ever since. And now, with Labour on course for a disastrous performance in Thursday's European elections, the party's authority is on the verge of being wiped out altogether.
The transition of Gordon Brown to Downing Street in 2007 is a crucial factor behind Labour's crisis of legitimacy. It is true that we do not have a presidential system in this country, but the fact that Mr Brown did not fight the last general election as leader of the Labour Party matters. He has no personal mandate. Indeed, Mr Brown never even fought an internal Labour leadership contest, running unopposed after much arm-twisting of MPs behind the scenes.
If the Government's democratic credibility looked shaky before, the expenses scandal of recent weeks has blown its moral authority apart entirely. No less a figure than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, has become the latest MP to come under pressure over his abuse of the allowances system. It is rather unfair for Labour to suffer more than other parties in the expenses fall-out; MPs of all affiliations have abused the system. But Labour is the biggest party in the Commons. With greater representation comes greater scrutiny.
The frantic atmosphere over expenses has paralysed politics. In normal times, an issue such as the precarious fate of Vauxhall workers in Luton and Ellesmere Port would dominate the political agenda. Yet at the moment, with politics dominated by debate about moats and gardening bills, the fate of General Motors Europe scarcely gets a mention in Westminster. Some commercial leaders are now beginning to complain that the expenses row is pushing other government business aside.
This assumes, of course, that the Government has any business that it is in a position to enact. Mr Brown says that dealing with the recession is his priority. But since the recapitalisation of the banks last October his government has introduced no policies of substance on the economy. Nor is it likely to. What, realistically, can be achieved between now and next June, the latest date that a general election can be held? Mr Brown's National Council for Democratic Renewal and his code of conduct for MPs sound like hastily drafted gimmicks, rather than proper reform packages. And the Government would have trouble getting any serious reform legislation through the Commons in its present fractious condition.
The Prime Minister is expected to announce a Cabinet reshuffle after Thursday's poll. But the idea that a few new faces will do anything to bolster the Government's mandate is, sadly, fantasy. What British politics needs is not a reshuffle but a general election, preferably before the end of the year. Only a national vote can provide the personnel clearout that the public demands. A fresh election is also needed to ease the paralysis of Whitehall. But we are unlikely to get an early election while Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister. His strategy will be to cling on until well into next year in the hope that improvement in the economy will give him a platform for election. Mr Brown was certainly quick to dismiss the case for an early poll yesterday.
So where can the impetus for change come from? It is possible that the Cabinet will tell Mr Brown that his time is up after this week's election results come out. And a low-key campaign for the personable Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, to take over from Mr Brown has been running for several months now. Mr Johnson might well enjoy a bounce in the polls, as new leaders often do, and save many Labour seats in a snap election. The former postman certainly has it in him to deliver an improvement in Labour's fortunes. However, what makes such a coup less likely is the desire of Labour MPs, many of whom would be facing defeat even with a new leader, to hang on to their salaries for another year.
This would, suffice to say, be the most dishonourable justification of all for allowing this broken administration to stagger on. It would confirm every suspicion of the public about the self-serving rapaciousness of MPs. If this week's results turn out to be as bad for the Government as many expect, Cabinet members and backbench Labour MPs need to summon up the courage that deserted them when Mr Brown ran unopposed for the Labour leadership and take action to remove the Prime Minister. That, in the end, is the only way the country will get the early general election it craves.