British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 6 - The General Election that did not take place

There were calls for a General Election when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister from the Opposition and from sections of the press. Opinion polls suggested that a majority of voters thought there should be an election. For several weeks there was increasing speculation that Brown would seek a dissolution of Parliament and an early General Election, speculation that leading figures in the Labour party either appeared to encourage or did little to dispel. The early ‘Brown bounce’ in the polls suggested an election would produce a comfortable Labour victory, perhaps even with an increased majority. David Cameron’s appeal was apparently fading, with Conservative divisions again evident, while the Liberal Democrats under Menzies Campbell had failed to excite the country. This provided Gordon Brown with a strong temptation to go to the country immediately and secure a personal mandate. There was an increase in party spending and campaigning. The Autumn party conferences took place in a fevered election atmosphere, with expectations of an imminent election. Yet the prospects of an election galvanised the Conservatives, promoting a new unity, and both Cameron and particularly the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, excited their party.

We can only speculate on the possible result of any election held in October or early November 2007. In view of the troubles that have engulfed the government since, it may be that this was Brown’s best chance or (even last chance) to avoid a Labour defeat. Although the opposition parties called for an election, there is some doubt whether they really wanted one. Brown may come to regret his caution.

The most obvious casualty of the non-election was Menzies Campbell. Although his leadership had failed to ignite his party or the country, while there were expectations of an early election, his position was safe, as there appeared no time to organise a new leadership election, and for a new leader to establish himself or herself. The postponement of the general election gave ample time and opportunity for those who wanted a change. In the face of mounting pressure, Campbell resigned.

Should there have been a General Election?

Quite apart from now fruitless speculation on which party might or might not have gained from an early election, there is a wider issue on whether a new Prime Minister should require a fresh mandate from the people. Past precedent suggests not. There have been many instances of a Prime Minister resigning, to be replaced with another from the same party, without an election being called. Thus there was no immediate election when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990, nor when James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson in 1976 nor when Sir Alec Douglas-Home took over from Harold Macmillan in 1963, nor in a number of similar cases over the last century. The only contrary precedent was provided by Stanley Baldwin, who called an early election several months after succeeding Bonar Law in 1923, because he wanted to introduce protection, and felt that his government had no mandate for such clear switch in policy. (He lost, leading to Britain’s first Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald.)

Although opposition parties routinely call for an election when a new Prime Minister succeeds, the same parties in government have rejected such calls. Normally, Prime Ministers only voluntarily seek a dissolution of a Parliament which has several years to run when they either lack a majority or only have a precarious majority, and hope to improve their position, as in 1966 or October 1976. However, they may be obliged to go to the country earlier than intended by a defeat in parliament on an issue of confidence (for example Callaghan in 1979).

Some would argue that there were special circumstances when Brown succeeded Blair which demanded an election. One argument was that Brown had not even been elected by his own party. This is a little more that a plausible-sounding debating point. Brown was formally elected by his party but faced no rival candidate. The reason for this was that it was widely reckoned inside and outside the party that there was no potential candidate with any chance of defeating Brown, who had been long established as Blair’s heir apparent. Blair delayed his own departure until his party’s leadership election processes had been completed. (In fact only two previous Prime Ministers who had succeeded in mid Parliament had been formally elected as leader by their party, Callaghan in 1976 and Major in 1990).

A rather stronger argument is that Blair had indicated in 2005 that he would serve for a full parliament, although he would not submit himself for a fourth election. Thus when Blair resigned after only serving for a little over two years, it could be suggested that the electorate had voted on a false prospectus. Yet voters had been told to expect his resignation before the next election, and it was clear that barring unforeseeable accidents his successor would be Brown, a point acknowledged by the Conservatives when they used the slogan ‘Vote Blair, get Brown.’ Moreover, Blair’s pledge could not commit the new Prime Minister. Constitutional experts agree that the decision to ask for a dissolution is ultimately the Prime Minister’s alone.