By the time you read this we will almost certainly have had 6 May confirmed as the general election date. The moment the Chancellor and the Prime Minister decided to press ahead with a Budget – scheduled for 24 March – it became nigh on impossible for them to exercise an April option. The Prime Minister will not want to risk a bloody nose at the local elections in May and then go to the country in June. So this will almost certainly be my last contribution as a Member of Parliament. I hope to give you an update on the election campaign in May, and to be able to comment on the results in June, but by then I shall be viewing things from the sidelines.
As I write, the Liberal Democrats are just concluding their spring conference and all the talk has been of what will happen if there is a hung Parliament. Many of the readers of this magazine (coming, as they do, from countries where coalition governments and party bargains are the norm) are bewildered by our apprehension at the thought of a Parliament in which no single party has a decisive majority.
In a sense this apprehension stems from the shape of our two chambers. Churchill said that we shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us. Never has that been truer than in the case of the Houses of Parliament. In 1547, at the height of the Reformation, the Protestant boy king, Edward VI, ejected the clergy from the Royal Chapel of St Stephen within the Palace of Westminster and gave the Chapel to the Commons as their first regular meeting place. As the Clergy moved out, the Commons occupied their stalls and replaced the altar with the Speaker’s Chair.
So began our adversarial system of politics with opponents facing each other across a divided chamber. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the party system developed and evolved, it became the custom for the Government party to sit on Mr Speaker’s right and the Opposition on his left. Not for us the hemicycle of Washington or most European capitals. Out of this the two-party system was born and only during the two world wars have we had proper coalitions (for one cannot call Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government of the 1930s – in a Commons overwhelmingly dominated by Conservatives – a coalition).
So today a hung Parliament is talked of as some sort of democratic aberration. In my 40 years in the House, I have seen just one hung Parliament elected – that of February 1974. It lasted little more than six months before the second election of that year, in October, produced a wafer-thin Labour majority. By the dying days of that Parliament, in the spring of 1979, a sort of hung Parliament had evolved because Labour had lost its overall majority through death and by-election and the crossing of the floor of one of its most prominent Members, the late Reg Prentice. John Major’s insubstantial overall majority of 1992 had gone by 1997 in similar circumstances.
It is because of this recent history that so many parliamentarians view the prospect of a hung Parliament with horror. For in our experience, hung Parliaments have not produced strong decisive Government. It is virtually impossible for any Government to be strong, or decisive, if it does not know whether it will win its next vote on the floor of the House of Commons.
A few months ago, I was confidently predicting a clear Conservative victory in May. I still feel in my bones that this is what will happen, but if it is to come about it is crucial that no one in the Conservative high command panics. What is quite clear is that this is going to be a much more exciting election than many of us thought. Some of the polls now give Labour the prospect of hanging on and the Liberals the possibility of obtaining greater power and influence, even if they lose some seats. For, if in a hung Parliament Labour and Liberal between them have more seats than the Conservatives, (the Conservatives being the single largest party), there will be a continuing threat to the stability of a minority Government.
What of the imponderables? The last general election saw the lowest percentage turn out nationally since the war. Everyone is asking whether the heightened interest in politics will be reflected in a higher poll. And what will be the effect of the expenses saga? Will people say ‘a plague on both your houses’ and not bother voting? Or will they utter the same refrain and then vote for maverick parties or maverick candidates? On one other imponderable much might depend – how will the prospective party leaders perform in the unprecedented televised debates? I have fought every single general election since, and including, 1964. I was even active in the 1959 general election. I have never known an election where there has been such potential for the campaign truly to influence the result.
All this reminds me of winning my first seat in 1970. Then, all the polls were forecasting a Labour victory before the election. They continued to make the same predictions during the campaign. Edward Heath won decisively, with an overall majority of around 40. History does not repeat itself but it does teach us lessons and elections of the past do give us pointers to the future. I think of 1970 and I feel deep down that by far the most likely result is a Conservative victory with a firm, though not enormous, majority. If this is what I feel, what I know is that the country has never needed a clear, firm, unambiguous and decisive leadership more than it needs it now. In 1970, I campaigned in my own constituency on the slogan ‘Time for Change’. I am comforted by the thought that this is the Conservative message at this election.