Monday, March 15, 2010

Brown says he will stay on - are we meant to be surprised?

Whatever you think of Gordon Brown's character, one point about him on which we can all agree is that he won't give up his position as Prime Minister and Labour leader without one hell of a fight. As the winner of all the battles to get rid of him since he was crowned Labur's king, he has proved he has some degree of staying power.

I did speculate recently in this blog that were Labour to lose their majority at the election without the Conservatives winning, his position could be strengthened rather than weakened against elements in his own party. His tenacious hold on the leadership in recent years should have made his announcement today that he will fight on unsurprising. We could however get into some interesting constitutional waters if Labour slips to be the second party but with no one having a majority.

In that instance there is no constitutional requirement for the Prime Minister and government to resign. (The moral requirement is something else.) In February 1974, Ted Heath hung on for a couple of days after the election whilst he tried to negotiate with the Liberals a deal that would at least keep him as Prime Minister. It was doomed to failure. And in 1923, Stanley Baldwin continued as Prime Minister for six weeks after the election. His Conservative party was the largest in the Commons. The election however saw them losing their Commons majority. After 6 weeks and a lost vote in the Commons, Baldwin resigned and Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, the second largest party, became Prime Minister without another general election.

And in the first election of 1910, the landslide Liberal majority was wiped out and Liberals and Conservatives were level pegging in the Commons. Nevertheless, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith stayed in his job.

The point is, a prime minister who loses a majority in a general election can stay on in power if no other party has taken a majority of seats. So the possibility of Labour continuing in office even as a minority second party under Brown is not an unrealistic outcome in May. And given Brown's desire to hold on to his job at whatever cost, even the application of a crowbar to the clenched, clunking fist may not be enough to loosen his grip on the reins of power.

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