John Humphrys – Who should tell MPs to pack their bags?

May 24, 2024, 4:11 PM GMT+0

Terrible timing for Rishi wasn’t it? The heavens opening just as he was about to make the speech that set the date for when his rule as our most powerful politician will come to an end. Or perhaps when his next term begins. As the world knows only too well, the polls strongly suggest the former. As I write, the latest YouGov poll says 57 per cent of voters believe Labour will win an overall majority.

In one sense Sunak has only himself to blame if he ends up looking for another job in a few weeks from now. True, not even a prime minister can dictate the weather. But he can dictate the timing of an election. And that’s a pretty powerful weapon to have at your disposal if you’re seeking another term in Number 10. The question some say we should be asking ourselves as a nation is whether it can be too powerful.

Britain briefly flirted with taking that power out of the hands of prime ministers, with the coalition government introducing the 2011 fixed-terms parliaments act. That, however, was seen more as a ploy by David Cameron to ensure that his government could run its course in the event that his Liberal Democrat coalition partners deprived him of his Commons majority.

While that dilemma never came to pass, the 2010 parliament nevertheless proved to be the only one to actually follow a fixed-term, with MPs voting in 2017 and 2019 early to dissolve parliament early, before doing away with the act entirely in 2022.

But does Rishi Sunak's decision to call the election early highlight the wisdom of the previous system, and of other democratic nations which follow the same principle?

For a start, they say, it would end the rather silly guessing game to which the nation is exposed - often for months on end - when an election is somewhere out there on the political horizon. Who, apart from the PM himself, was actually ‘in on the secret’? And why? Isn’t it rather silly - and indeed disrespectful to his hosts - that a foreign secretary should have to cut short a visit to a foreign country so that he can rush back to London for the announcement which he has been told is coming but which he dare not reveal even to his own close advisers?

Isn’t it even more silly that the prime minister himself teases his political opponents about the timing as though this is some tired old parlour game? And not only his opponents. We now know that Sunak had decided many weeks or even months ago on the date but told only a tiny handful of very close friends or colleagues. Was it not rather disrespectful, if not positively demeaning to all involved, that he should have deliberately misled radio listeners just this week that the election would be in the ‘second half’ of the year when he knew he would be announcing the date in a matter of hours?

But far more important to those who want to reform the system is the effect on the governing party’s legislative programme when the prime minister suddenly announces an election. Several of the new measures that were thought sufficiently important to have been promised to the party conference and the nation last year will now have to be abandoned.

They include fundamental reforms to the regulations allowing landlords to evict people renting their homes without providing a reason. Tenants would also be able to challenge appalling living conditions without the fear that they’d be turfed out by rapacious landlords and find themselves on the street.

Another slightly more controversial policy would have turned Britain into a smoking-free nation. A new law would have raised the legal age for buying cigarettes by one year every year. It would have meant that children aged 14 today would never be able to buy cigarettes legally in their lifetime. The measure was designed to gradually phase out smoking among younger generations without criminalising those who are already hooked on tobacco.

You may agree or disagree with those measures but they would indisputably have affected the lives of many had they become law. Now, as ministers acknowledge, that’s not going to happen.

It is, of course, possible that they will be adopted by the new government. Possible but highly unlikely. If there is one certainty in politics it is that no incoming prime minister has ever said to themselves as they walk through the doors of Number Ten: ‘Hmm… I wonder which of my predecessor’s policies I’ll adopt.’

But does any of this matter? After all, another absolute certainty is that Prime Minister Starmer will have more than enough proposals of his own and the whole point of our system is that new governments should get five years in which to do their damndest to turn them into law.

Except, of course, that they may not. And that raises the question of fixed-term parliaments.

Let’s accept that there are some changes to our constitution that are simply unthinkable – or at least so long as we retain the monarchy. Only the King can formally summon and dissolve Parliament though, of course, in practise he can do so only on the advice of the Prime Minister. And, equally obviously, dissolving parliament means there must be a general election.

But why, say republicans, could we not dispense with the fiction that the King has any real power and do what so many other democratic governments do. In a nutshell: agree that Parliament would have to be dissolved after a specific time. Maybe four years. Maybe five. Maybe even three. The obvious example is the United States.

There are already similarities between our systems. Like us, the USA has two houses of parliament. One is the House of Representatives and the other is the Senate. The House is dissolved every two years and its 435 members face an election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years. The Senate has 100 members who each sit for six years. A third of them must face re-election every two years – again with a fixed date.

It sounds complicated but it’s not. It works. The President has no power to determine when the elections are held and the relationship between him (so far never ‘her’ of course!) and Congress is the cornerstone of the American political system. It embodies the principles of checks and balances and the separation of powers outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1788. It’s said to be the world's longest surviving written charter of government and its first three words are the key to its purpose. They are ‘We The People’.

It has been amended over the centuries but that fundamental relationship between the executive in the form of the President and the legislature in the form of Congress remains unchanged.

Hence the outrage when Donald Trump gave tacit approval to his more deranged supporters to do the unthinkable and invade the sacred halls of Congress when he failed to win the last presidential election.

So why should we look across the Atlantic for any guidance that just might be relevant to our more ancient and, many of us tend to think, superior system? That question takes us back to Rishi Sunak standing in the rain outside Number 10 a few days ago.

There are, of course, endless ways in which the powers of an American President set against those of a British prime minister resemble those of a pit bull against a poodle.

In most hugely important respects, for instance, the President has more direct control over the executive branch of government and, of course, much broader powers in foreign policy and military matters. Theoretically he cannot declare war. That’s for Congress to do. But he has operational command and control over all military forces and that role includes making strategic military decisions and overseeing military operations. If he wants to press the button and start World War Three he can. Rishi Sunak can’t. Many - including Sunak himself no doubt - would say: thank God for that.

In recent years, there has been a convention that significant military actions must be debated and approved by Parliament. The Iraq War in 2003 and the airstrikes in Syria in 2013 and 2015 were examples of that. The Prime Minister sought and obtained parliamentary approval.

It may not be legally binding, but this convention reflects the democratic principle that the elected representatives in Parliament should have a say in decisions of such magnitude.

But the prime minister does have a power that is denied to the mighty American President. He can decide when to bring to an end a parliamentary term based purely on when he thinks it will give him the best hope of being returned to power.

Is it time we took another look at that? Let me know what you think.

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