David Owen: Lessons in removing politicians from public office

Tuesday 12 August 2008 00:00

Any system of democratic government has to have the provision for terminating a prime minister's or president's term of office against their wish, whether because of serious ill health, or misconduct. More controversial is how they should be removed for political reasons. In the United States removal can be done, for health reasons, under the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution or by impeachment, for other reasons, by congressional politicians of all parties. Richard Nixon would never have resigned just because he was an alcoholic or had broken the law. It required the threat of impeachment.

In the United Kingdom removal is done within the procedures laid down by the prime minister's political party and politicians from other parties are only involved if the prime minister loses, or in the case of Chamberlain, is wounded by a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.

Some believe in the UK that no prime minister, short of ill health or misconduct, should be removed for political reasons by their party and that it should only be done by Parliament or the electorate through a general election. A US president is directly elected by the people. A British prime minister is chosen first by their party and becomes prime minister as a consequence of their party being able to command a majority of MPs, not necessarily all from their own party, in the House of Commons and not necessarily immediately after a general election.

In post-war Britain the existing party procedures were invoked for choosing a leader after the voluntary resignations of Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan but only Eden called an immediate general election, confident that he would – as he did – win by a large majority.

Margaret Thatcher was removed by Conservative MPs against her will through the then formal party procedure. Tony Blair was removed, forced out at least a year earlier than he wished by the threat of a contested party election. Both were removed having developed a personality syndrome I have called hubris. Both were pursuing political positions in relation, respectively, to the EU and Iraq, which alienated significant sections in their party. They had also become unpopular with the electorate.

Changes made in a prime minister cannot be purely the preserve of a political party. Firstly, the party's procedure for changing their leader, and the country's prime minister, should be perceived to be democratic, open and transparent. Also, all the political parties, while having different procedures, have rightly built in a high threshold for removing their leader when prime minister and these thresholds should be respected.

Taken from a speech about his book In Sickness and In Power at the Edinburgh Book Festival

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