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
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.