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Numbers bring political power


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The late Forbes Burnham once defined politics as the science of deals. As time passes, I am drawn to the view that he was right, and the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition which emerged from the horse trading in Britain, after the recent election, supports Burnham’s thesis.In this article I will touch lightly on “hung parliaments”, the position of Mr Gordon Brown after the election; the problem of unelected prime ministers and the office of deputy prime minister nowheld by the leader of theLiberal Democrats.The first truth of all political elections is that there is power in numbers, for he who has the numbers in his favour after the election becomes the country’s leader. As we saw in President Obama’s election, the magic number related to electoral college votes.But in a 650 member House of Commons the magic number was 326 seats, or half the number of seats plus one. The Conservatives won 305, Labour secured 258 and the Lib Dems held 57 seats. Since no party gained the magic number to entitle the leader of that party to form the next government, the question of who would be the next prime minister was left unanswered and “hanging”. Hence the expression, “a hung parliament”, for as Shakespeare wrote: “Thereby hangs a tale!”But we have seen this situation before. Readers will recall the 18/18 split a few years ago in Trinidad and Tobago, when the role and power of President A.N.R. Robinson to appoint a prime minister were vigorously debated and opinions sought from British constitutional experts!Even before then we hada classic hung parliament inSt Vincent. In 1972, Sir James Mitchell (as he is now) “successfully contestedthe general election as an independent candidate. He had first entered parliament in 1966 as a member of the St Vincent Labour Party (SVLP), but with the 1972 election ending ina 6-6 draw between the SVLP  and the PPP (People’s Political Party), Sir James, as an independent candidate, struck a deal with the PPP’s leader E.T. Joshua and became premier under the Alliance government”. Such is the power of numbers!Nick Clegg (the Lib Dem leader) has followed in the footsteps of Sir James for he has secured cabinet seats and other government posts for his team and the office of deputy prime minister for himself, proving that “politics makes forstrange bed fellows”. Now when elections produce no “immediate” new prime minister, the focus shifts, albeit for the time being, to the prime minister who called the elections, for he remains prime minister until the dust settles after horse tradingbetween  parties. Gordon Brown did not resign immediately and his decision was supported by precedent.In any event, the ship of state could not be abandoned, and Brown was constitutionally bound, in my view, to remainat the helm while “coalition” negotiations between theLib Dems and the Conservatives, and later between (Labour and the Lib-Dems) took place. As we also have in our regional constitutions, there are specific rules governing the appointment or re-appointment to the office of prime minister after elections. Order and not emotion governs the process. Akin to the Duckworth/Lewis rules, one cannot shift the rules to suit one’s inclinations, for chaos and not order will follow as night follows day!Anyways, Clegg, leader ofthe Lib Dems, now occupies the office of Deputy Prime Minister, an office repeatedly said not to exist under the British Constitution. I wrote a full article on this topic in 1987 when Barrow died, and pointed out that not only have Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher declared that no such office exists, but that King George Vl refused to appoint Anthony Eden as deputy prime minister when Winston Churchill sought to sodesignate him.However, Wilson’s assertion that “in normal times there is in the British Constitution no such animal as a deputy prime minister” may justify Clegg’s appointment, since coalitions, in British constitutional practice, are not “normal”. And in any event, in the wartime coalition cabinet, Sir Winston Churchill (Conservative) appointed Clement Attlee (leader of the Labour Party) as his deputy prime minister.My final point, for the time being, is that Brown, like Sir Harold St John in 1985 andSir Lloyd Sandiford in 1987, all ascended to the prime minister’s office as “unelected” prime ministers! True, Sir Lloyd won his own mandate in 1991, but that apart, Brown like Sir Lloyd felt intense pressures soon after he occupied the hot seat. Further, Brown, St John and Sandiford as unelected prime ministers succeeded charismatic leaders, (Blair, Tom Adams and Errol Barrow) whose political flair they did not match, even though they were all extremely capable and successful “deputies”.Brown’s defeat like St John’s in 1986 and Sandiford’s in 1994 supports my view that in politics, one must choose one’s leader on a “horses for courses” basis, since he who is successful as a deputy may not always have the guile and style suited to the role of leader. In 2007 I argued that it was not politically wise to force Blair from office. Other local writers argued that “fixed terms” for the office of prime minister, should be imposed and that the ouster of Blair was a good thing for the British Labour Party. Well now we know!