The Unintended Constitutional Legacies of David Cameron

Rarely read but often quoted, the illustrious writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld once said, “Great and glorious events which dazzle the beholder are represented by politicians as the outcome of grand designs whereas they are usually products of temperaments and passions.” Like all good maxims, its popularity rests on its adaptability.

Before they assumed office the Conservatives had a far-reaching, even radical, programme of constitutional reform. Some proposals were designed to appease their base, such as a British Bill of Rights, a bill to subject further European integration to popular votes or English Votes for English Laws; others to further New Labour’s devolution settlement or extend it to large cities; the most eye-catching were reactions against supposed Blairite control-freakery: reducing the size of Parliament or elections to House of Commons select committees.

However, it may be that Cameron’s greatest constitutional legacies were never intended.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was devised to reduce the executive’s ability to manipulate election timing for partisan advantage. It was a Liberal Democrat addition to the Coalition Agreement. Its five-year terms, rather than the more customary four, was due to a late correction by George Osborne, who recognised the need for every possible minute to gain any electoral juice from the economic cycle. To ensure the Conservatives could not force a confidence vote and call an early election to secure a majority, Parliament’s ability to bring down governments was curtailed. Coalition governments, minority governments or indeed governments with slender majorities thus became more stable: parliamentary confidence is no longer linked to the government’s legislative programme.

Today, the executive can fail to secure a parliamentary mandate for  legislation and surviveIt is not just because the government is still in its honeymoon period, unopposed by a distracted Labour party, that it feels secure beyond its slim majority. The assumption is that it will last until 2020.

It is easy now to see Thatcher’s and Blair’s long premierships as inevitable. Though they commanded large majorities, neither always seemed secure. When she appointed Francis Pym Foreign Secretary at the beginning of the Falklands War, it was not because Mrs Thatcher had confidence in him but because Parliament did. Four years later the Westland affair almost ended her career. Blair would have resigned had the vote to authorise the Iraq invasion gone against him. In 2013 Cameron lost a similar vote on Syrian air-strikes with no political consequences. Today, the executive can fail to secure a parliamentary mandate for legislation and survive.

Coalition also limited Cameron’s manoeuvre within his own Cabinet. Unshackled he has not changed. A prime minister needs to be a good butcher. Butcher Cameron is ruthless but reluctant to wield his blade. The ritual spilling of ministerial blood on Downing Street’s pavements to distract attention from political weaknesses has given way to ministers being allowed to become familiar with their briefs. Those who criticised his 2014 reshuffle missed the point. There was little parliamentary business. Governments rarely need five years to enact their manifestos. Cameron was presenting his future team to the country. His limited post-election reshuffle allowed that team to hit the new parliamentary ground running.

POTENTIALLY CAMERON'S MOST FAR-REACHING REFORM WILL RISE FROM AN ACCIDENTAL COMMENT MADE IN AN PRE-ELECTION INTERVIEWPotentially his most far-reaching reform will rise from an accidental comment made in an pre-election interview when he said he would only serve one more term. Two shredded wheat is enough, he declared metaphorically. Those who saw this as a Blair-style gaff overlook the differences of circumstances. Blair made his similar promise from a position of party weakness; although Cameron has never been popular with some, he consistently out-polls his party and, unlike Blair, has no obvious successor. Term-limited US Presidents are not lame-ducks from the moment of re-election. They slowly lose authority when attention turns to the primary season. Though constantly underestimated, no matter how pungent the excrement David Cameron covers himself in, he successfully retains a floral aroma. If he left setting out a timetable for his departure until the latest moment, perhaps to coincide with a 2019 reshuffle - which, as in 2014, presents the 2020 Conservative administration - he could even serve as prime minister, though not party leader, until the election campaign, or even up to polling day itself.

Convention can be as significant as law. George Washington saw two terms as sufficient for a president. His example was followed by every successor until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Twenty-second Amendment was only passed in 1951. Here executive destiny increasingly lies in the voters’ occasional hands, not Parliament’s. It may be that Cameron could create a precedent: the assumption that prime ministers serve full parliamentary terms. It is a logical continuation of the presidential premiership.

Roy Jenkins said that a modern leader’s mean-life was eight years. By creating five-year terms Cameron has extended that to a decade. Who would dare to attempt fifteen?

A government which intended a revitalised Parliament is accidentally pulling in the opposite direction simultaneously. If not entirely contradictory, it is unintended: a fixed-term act forced upon him by an unexpected coalition; five-year parliaments due to transient political expediency; a potential custom because of a carefree answer in the disarray of an election campaign. Temperament and passion. Somehow I think de la Rochefoucauld would have been amused at history pivoting on a prime minister’s love of fibrous breakfast cereals.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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