Parliament dissolved

Published in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 01 May 2005

The British elections

By Quentin Langley
Sunday, May 1, 2005

LONDON -- The Queen has dissolved Parliament. But don't worry. This is not some monarchist coup against parliamentary government. It means that an election has been called. In fact, Britain now is halfway through its election campaign.
The United Kingdom does not have fixed-term parliaments; there is a maximum length of five years. But within that limit the prime minister can call an election whenever he feels like it. Which is to say, whenever he feels he will win.

Tony Blair long had signalled that May 5 -- this Thursday -- was his favored date. And so it remained, even though polls showed a shift from a strong Labour lead to a fairly even race. Since the campaign began, Labour's lead seems to have reasserted itself.

Failed promises

Most people say they would pay more taxes for better public services. But after eight years of Labour, people have paid the taxes but not yet seen the goods.

Iraq divided opinion from the outset and Blair made a severe miscalculation. Knowing his party would not support him on a mission for regime change, he based his pitch solely on weapons of mass destruction. President Bush's decision to make a much wider case now seems to have been much cleverer.

Blair probably will win, though not by the thumping majorities of 1997 and 2001. And he has already made it clear that he will not serve a full term. So, if Labour secures another majority, the party will, at some unspecified future date, choose a new leader who will become prime minister.

Parliamentary primer

In a parliamentary system, the role of prime minister is, at least in terms of accountability, more akin to speaker of the House than president.

The idea of a leader changing midterm is fairly familiar and not shocking, as it would be in the United States. Voters who cast their ballots for Labour are electing local members of Parliament and only indirectly choosing a prime minister.

If that does happen, Blair's most likely successor remains his close colleague and longtime rival Gordon Brown, chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury secretary) for the past eight years.

Brown is thought of as being to the left of Blair and has cultivated support on Labour's powerful left wing. More passionately committed to equality, he would probably spend more and be more resistant of public service reform. But he has been his party's spokesman only on economics. Thus, it's is hard to know if he would change Britain's pro-American foreign policy.

Most likely, however, not. Blair is an instinctive European, a fluent French speaker, who likes relaxing vacations with family and wine in France and Italy. Brown prefers Cape Cod and a huge pile of political biographies or philosophical texts. So, despite his left leanings, his instincts probably are pro-American.

The Conservatives

If Labour loses, it will be to the Conservatives, who ruled for 18 years under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. But this would not be the radical Conservatives of Thatcher's days.

The party promises only a few modest tax cuts and minimal restraint on current spending plans. Their leader, Michael Howard, a Cabinet secretary under Thatcher and Major, is strongly pro-American and would resist further European integration.

While out of frontline politics for several years, he founded a group called 2020, which campaigned for free trade between the European Union and NAFTA countries by 2020.

The most immediate possible threat to the cozy relationship between the White House and 10 Downing Street is from the third party - the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the Iraq war.

The LibDems cannot win. But if Labour fails to get a clear majority in Parliament, then a coalition with the LibDems is possible. They could demand either the Home Office (Interior department) or Foreign Office in exchange for their support. A LibDem as foreign secretary would be far less friendly to the United States and much closer to France and Germany.

Whichever party is elected, it may come to regret it. The electorate is not currently conscious of economic problems, but there definitely are some in the pipeline.

The government is running a huge budget deficit. Unlike the U.S., where a proportionally similar deficit has arisen against the background of growth-inducing tax cuts, runaway British expenditure has led to a deficit in spite of more than 60 tax increases.

The next government will have to rein in expenditure and/or raise taxes further. If new taxes have, in four or five years' time, still produced little in the way of improvements to public services, current grumbling about taxes will have turned to anger. It is easy to imagine that a Conservative government elected this year would be turfed out after a single term.

A fairer result is probably for Gordon Brown to succeed Tony Blair and then reap the harvest of his own bad budgeting. A newly radicalized Conservative Party elected on a wave of anger about taxes could introduce swingeing reforms.

Quentin Langley lectures in public relations at the University of Cardiff, Wales, and is international correspondent of Campaigns & Elections.

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