A letter in The Independent, from one Sam Butler who hails from my home town of Fleet:
Sir: Pundits have been analysing the factors that the Prime Minister might take into account when deciding whether to go for an early general election. Predictably they focus on his party’s electability: poll findings, the opinions of MPs in marginal constituencies, public perceptions of his financial record and so on. It is a pity that the question of when it would be in the public interest to hold an election seems to figure so far down the list.
Well, yes, but I hardly think we can blame the politicians for this. If someone has pretensions to run the country, then it is not unusual for them to hold the belief that they are the best person to do so. Speaking in realpolitik terms, one might say that it is a prerequisite for the job. Certainly, if a Leader or Leader-in-waiting claimed otherwise, they would come in for some severe criticism from both sides of the political divide. This is why the Tories say they are happy to fight an election whenever Gordon is ready.
So, when making the decision of whether or not to go to the polls, Sam Butler’s question is a moot point. The Prime Minister (whoever he or she may be) already assumes that “in the public interest” is synonymous with “in the interests of my career”. This is certainly true of the current and previous incumbents of the post, and I assume for Margaret Thatcher too. I don’t know whether John Major always thought that he was the best person to run the country. Sometimes it seemed that this wasn’t the case. After all, he waited for as long as was constitutionally possible before calling an election in 1997. Perhaps his apparent lack of self-belief was one reason why he lost support of the public that year.
Having confidence that you are the Best Thing To Happen to the Country might be a little irritating, and not a little alienating to the rest of us. But it is not necessarily a bad trait that we should wish away. Nor is it the same thing as faking confidence that you will get any votes, which is the saddest kind of spin.
As to the question itself: The current administration has spent much of its short life responding to crises, and with Parliament in recess. It feels a little like an interregnum, or a phoney-war, before the real business of governing begins. A new, strong, full term mandate for Gordon Brown will bring a degree of stability to the country, which is surely good for the economy, and for the efficent implementation of policy. Alternatively, a Labour government with a smaller majority, or a coalition government led by either Labour or the Conservatives, would farm uncertainty. And the current speculation-without-confirmation is surely a distraction for everyone. So, even those who reject the Labour ideology might agree that, in the practical sense, the country’s interests are indeed linked to that of the Prime Minister.