After the initial shock at David Cameron’s casual announcement that he intends to limit himself to two terms in office as Prime Minister should he win the 2015 general election, the nature of the media response is changing.
First came confusion and uncertainty as to what (if any) impact the announcement would have on the outcome of the election campaign currently upon us. Then came speculation about the impact on the Conservative Party, and whether the Tories would find themselves riven with infighting and jostling for position from the start of any new administration, effectively making David Cameron an instant lame duck. And then there were some rather tenuous claims from the left that Cameron’s decision was “arrogant” and presumptuous.
This blog believes that a far more interesting question is the mystery of who will replace Ed Miliband in the quite likely scenario that he fails to lead Labour out of opposition and back in to government, and is gently encouraged to fall on his sword on 8 May.
But now there is a school of thought among those riding to Cameron’s defence which holds that the Prime Minister’s actions were principled and honourable, and that his example should be formalised through the introduction of term limits for the role of Prime Minister.
Daniel Finkelstein, writing in The Times (+), is the latest high-profile convert to the cause:
Ten years is quite long enough for anyone to be prime minister. It’s not a good idea for anyone to enjoy power in perpetuity even if they have to get re-elected from time to time. Instead of this charade of asking the prime minister a question to which we all deserve an answer, and then calling him a fool or presumptuous if he answers, or a liar and evasive if he doesn’t, why don’t we just solve the problem for him or her?
We should have a term limit for prime ministers. Two terms and that’s your lot. And if you quit half way through your term, your successor should require an election within months. David Cameron’s answer should be compulsory.
Daniel Finkelstein is right, to a point. If limiting British Prime Ministers to two terms of five years is such a great idea (and on balance it is), this should not be left up to the individual whim of the incumbent to step aside at the end of their decade in power – it should be required by law.
But making this change in isolation will not work, as it raises too many other questions that would need resolving. For example, would government ministers be term-limited too? What about backbench MPs? Lord knows that there exists a stale rump of MPs in Parliament who occupy very safe seats and who have done almost nothing useful for their constituency or the country at large in years. Term limiting ordinary MPs could do away with the scourge of the “career politician” and encourage more citizen politicians in the model of outgoing Tory MP Dan Byles, who took time out from his career to serve his country, and is now returning to private life.
Indeed, the concept of term limits for executive office holders works much better in a more presidential system such as that of the United States, where the executive and the legislature are two separate and clearly delineated branches of government. Term limits for British politicians could be a positive step, but we would likely need full separation of powers, moving toward a model where the Prime Minister was directly elected by the whole British electorate, and then chose his cabinet from the country as a whole rather than the limited talent pool within the House of Commons.
Of course, if Parliament and the Prime Minister were elected separately this would raise the possibility of a Conservative Prime Minister having to work with a Labour-majority House of Commons, or vice versa. We would need to re-examine the processes by which legislation is currently proposed and ratified, whether the Prime Minister would wield a veto and how that veto might be overridden by a supermajority of MPs.
In short, prime ministerial term limits could be a positive development, but they need to be considered as part of a wider programme of constitutional reform, not as one of a series of unrelated problems and irritations to be corrected on an ad hoc basis. For once, Britain needs to stop “muddling along” and take a long, hard look at how we want to govern ourselves in the future.
It is almost certain that the coming election will result in a hung parliament and throw up either a minority or coalition government that most Brits will scream they did “not vote for”. And yet this is the way out political system functions – it is no abnormality, and certainly no secret. Those who complain about the coming result, whatever it may be, will have no more justification for their outrage than the officers of the Titanic had for slamming into that Atlantic iceberg at full speed – both should have seen the obstacle in their path, had they only been looking properly.
At long last, the United Kingdom needs a full constitutional convention so that we are not continually surprised and wrongfooted by political events, and outraged that vital decisions affecting all our lives end up being taken in secret, behind locked doors and away from any form of oversight or public accountability.
Britain needs to have this difficult conversation now, because the only thing more painful than the idea of enduring the same prime minister for more than ten years is the thought of another decade spent muddling along in political and constitutional limbo.
For more information, see the LSE’s Constitution UK project, an online effort to crowdsource a new constitution for the UK.