It’s time for a two-term limit for Bri­tish PMs

US pres­i­dents get to bask in the sat­is­fac­tion of a job well done, be­cause they weren’t al­lowed to re­main in power un­til they cur­dled

Gulf News - - Opinion -

don’t of­ten wish I was Amer­i­can. All things con­sid­ered, I’d prob­a­bly take a point-blank Brexit to the face over the in­ter­na­tional em­bar­rass­ment of life un­der US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. How­ever, I will ad­mit to a rare pang of envy watch­ing the One Amer­ica Ap­peal fundraiser re­cently. Not so much for the events that prompted the show, or for the ma­jor­ity of its con­tent, but for the over­whelm­ing glam­our of see­ing five for­mer pres­i­dents gad about on stage to­gether like a re­united Ea­gles. Not only was it a demon­stra­tion of un­bri­dled star power, but it felt like a gen­uine mo­ment.

Ronald Rea­gan and Ge­orge Bush Sr aside, each of them spent years in di­rect ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­si­tion to both their pre­de­ces­sor and suc­ces­sor. Their ca­reers were made by speak­ing out against the peo­ple they now stood along­side. By rights, all the for­mer pres­i­dents should be the bit­ter­est of ri­vals. And yet there they were, old and mon­eyed and pally, their dif­fer­ences long since evap­o­rated. The sight of it was ac­tu­ally quite sooth­ing. It was a re­minder that ev­ery­thing is tem­po­rary; that if they can put aside their dif­fer­ences, so can we. I sup­pose that was the whole point of it.

But then I kept imag­in­ing a Bri­tish ver­sion, with all our re­main­ing prime min­is­ters lined up on stage to­gether. David Cameron next to Gor­don Brown. Brown next to Tony Blair. Blair next to John Ma­jor. The thought of it left me gen­uinely mis­er­able, and I couldn’t fig­ure out why. Could it be the grotty, grey, low-stakes na­ture of our own driz­zly lit­tle postim­pe­rial is­land? Could it be our in­nate lack of re­spect for elected of­fi­cials? Could it be that, in terms of out-and-out star power, John Ma­jor is no Jimmy Carter?

Then it hit me. A lineup of Bri­tish prime min­is­ters would be a fail­ure be­cause we have no set term limit to power.

The pres­i­dents, by and large, all looked happy and re­laxed be­cause they’d had the ben­e­fit of a fin­ish­ing line to reach. They got to bask in the sat­is­fac­tion of a job well done, be­cause they weren’t al­lowed to re­main in power un­til they cur­dled. With the ex­cep­tion of Carter and Bush Sr, they had all man­aged to hit the jack­pot. Eight years on the job, then a free he­li­copter ride, then it’s done. They got out clean. It’s a great sys­tem. But a Bri­tish ver­sion would only be a celebration of cow­ardice and de­feat. Cameron legged it as soon as things got dif­fi­cult. Blair slunk away and palmed us off with Brown, thanks to some berserk agree­ment made dur­ing a fancy Islington lunch. Ma­jor re­signed as the head of his own party two years be­fore his last gen­eral elec­tion be­cause he was fed up with ev­ery­one moan­ing at him. Where’s the glam­our in that?

There are a lot of things I like about Bri­tish pol­i­tics — how our elec­tions are wrapped up within six weeks, which spares us the te­dium of Amer­ica’s end­less whirligig of car­nage, for ex­am­ple — but the way we leave our lead­ers to floun­der un­til they go mad and die is not one of them. Most coun­tries fig­ured this out ages ago. Pop a pin any­where in an at­las and you’re likely to find a sen­si­ble term limit. France: two terms. Brazil: two terms. Botswana: two terms. Estonia: two terms. China: two terms. Fin­land, Mace­do­nia, Mi­crone­sia, El Sal­vador: all have fixed-term lim­its. Us? Not so much.

Get­ting things done

With­out ex­ag­ger­a­tion, a two-term limit for Bri­tish prime min­is­ters would solve all our prob­lems at once. A fin­ish­ing line would fo­cus the mind, and spur them on to get things done. No­body would give up and flounce off like Cameron be­cause they would know that their strug­gles were fi­nite. Brexit would be dealt with re­spon­si­bly, be­cause the leader would un­der­stand that they would be left to deal with the con­se­quences when it all went wrong. Plus you would get to do your job with­out the bul­bous spec­tre of Bri­tish Sec­re­tary of State for For­eign Af­fairs Boris John­son loom­ing up be­hind you like an of­fen­sive toy when­ever things started to look a bit iffy.

“Of course,” you’re say­ing, “this will never hap­pen, be­cause that would re­quire a leader to de­lib­er­ately cede power, and that isn’t in their na­ture.” But to that I say this: have you seen Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May lately? She hates her job. She lit­er­ally hates ev­ery last stink­ing sec­ond of her stupid mis­er­able job. She hates it so much I ac­tu­ally pity her. She re­minds me of the man I used to see sit­ting on a park bench ev­ery morn­ing, suited up and sigh­ing into his hands, try­ing to steel him­self against the silli­ness of the day ahead. All May wants to do is leave. And she has the power to make it hap­pen. One quick law say­ing that all prime min­is­ters have to leave at the end of their sec­ond term, and bingo. She will have dug an es­cape tun­nel for her­self, and we’ll all be bet­ter off as a re­sult.

The gleam of the One Amer­ica Ap­peal won’t last. Three years from now, the lineup will be aug­mented by an obese orange 74-year-old oaf mini-golf­ing around the stage shad­owed by a teenage boy dressed as his es­tranged wife, and the magic will have dis­ap­peared for­ever. This op­por­tu­nity won’t hap­pen again. So do it now, Theresa. Do it while the ter­ri­ble mo­men­tum of your hor­ri­ble job is still red-hot. Stu­art Her­itage writes about film, TV and mu­sic for the Guardian.

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