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Cameron and parliamentary democracy

David Cameron has proposed a law that would force a general election within six months of the party of the prime minister changing its leader. This isn’t really how parliamentary democracy works. Margaret Thatcher was quoted recently giving her reason for not having a prime ministerial debate, “We are not choosing a president, we are electing a government”. The election on 6 May is not an electoral college system with 650 constituencies voting for Brown, Cameron or Clegg. In Britain, the prime minister is chosen as whoever can command a majority of members of the House of Commons. For it to be defined otherwise would be a major departure, and out of step with traditions across Europe. Gordon Brown held his mandate subject to the MPs, as did Tony Blair and every prime minister before them. As the list of prime ministers shows, there have been several occasions over the centuries where a retiring prime minister, from the three parties, was succeeded by his successor as party leader without any general expectation of an impending general election.

Here in Ireland, Éamon de Valera was succeeded by Seán Lemass in 1959, Lemass by Jack Lynch in 1966, Lynch by Charles Haughey in 1979, Haughey by Albert Reynolds in 1992 and Bertie Ahern by Brian Cowen in 2008, on each occasion as part of the succession of the party leader. We would find similar patterns in parliamentary democracies across Europe.

As a Conservative, David Cameron should have a solid reason for proposing a departure from this constitutional convention, rather than merely sniping at Gordon Brown’s cowardice (and ultimately poor judgment) in not calling an election in the autumn of 2007 as he had strongly considered.

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