Fixed term parliaments means maximum two-term prime ministers

by John Woodcock

David Cameron’s days as prime minister are numbered. But Ed Miliband is not going to last in the top job as long as Tony Blair did.

It is not that I have been afflicted with a career-limiting combination of nostalgia for past Labour leaders and naïve over-enthusiasm after a single by-election win.

My predictions on the longevity of the current prime minister and his would-be successor stem in fact from a little-considered consequence of fixed term parliaments: namely, that they may well unintentionally place a US-style two-term limit on anyone’s stay at number ten. (And before anyone starts, I am not saying that I think Mr Cameron is on course for a win in 2015. He is not).

But let’s assume for a moment that governments will not generally collapse mid-term and trigger unexpected early elections. For all the trauma currently being experienced by the Liberal Democrats, those at the top are strapped into their ministerial priuses so securely that it is very hard to see them breaking away early.

So if Britain falls into a settled pattern of elections every five years, a party leader’s promise to serve for a full term is likely in future to mean just that, or at least much closer to the full five years that Tony Blair managed when, erm, push came to shove in his third term.

Gordon Brown having served as PM for three years without having been chosen by the British people was by no means our greatest difficulty at the last election. But we should nevertheless accept that it annoyed quite a few of the people we were trying to convince to stick with us. The election-that-never-was undoubtedly increased the salience of the issue, but it would have been there anyway.

Few would fancy seeing Labour try another prolonged stint with an unelected prime minister any time soon, and the Tories certainly could not do it with any credibility given the scorn to which they subjected Gordon.

It would, of course, be perfectly possible for an incoming leader of a governing party to instruct his MPs to trigger an early general election from a position of strength.

But my guess is that most of those who do win a second term will settle into a pattern of staying until within six months or so of election day.

What I cannot imagine is that the public would be particularly enthusiastic about opting for another five years from a leader who had already served for ten. Margaret Thatcher may well never be knocked off her perch as the longest serving prime minister of modern times.

Why should we care about all this if and when we win again?

Well, a bit more security around the tenure of leaders might prevent some of the internal instability that caused so much damage through much of our last decade in office. Some still make the case that it would have been in the best interests of the country for Tony to have gone earlier; many more insist that Gordon should have bailed out before he was sunk by the voters.

But it is very hard to make the case that the country, or the Labour party, was best served by a situation in which people very publicly attempted but failed to secure either outcome.

Feelings are still too raw about those events to judge the period objectively. But as time goes by, an enduring conclusion will surely be that destructive tension over the leadership of our party was one of the biggest drag anchors holding New Labour back in government.

During these grim days of opposition, it is hard to contemplate even having the option of behaving irresponsibly in power.

Nevertheless, we should welcome anything that lessens the temptation of doing so when we do win back the chance to govern.

In the meantime, if you fancy a flutter predicting the next time a prime minister will stand down before he or she is pushed by the electorate: pick the end of a year that ends in ‘4’ or ‘9’.

The next Labour leadership contest in December 2024? You never know.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

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