Tom Richmond: Fixed-term rule must not bind the next Government

UNLIKE his predecessors who could not avoid endless – and destabilising – speculation about the date of the next general election, David Cameron has no such worries.

Polling Day – May 7, 2015 – was set in stone from the moment that the coalition’s Fixed Term Parliament Act was enshrined into law by MPs after the Tories and Liberal Democrats came together in the national interest.

The reasoning was two-fold, First, it reassured the City and international money markets that this Government was committed to cutting the deficit and rebuilding the economy. Second, it removed any temptation for the Tories to “cut and run” and call a snap election that might leave the Lib Dems at a significant disadvantage.

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This, I am told, is why the prediction of two elections in 2015 – made on these pages last Saturday – is said to be erroneous. Even if the country faces political stalemate next year because neither the Tories nor Labour can secure a Commons majority, or reach a meaningful agreement with the Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists and potentially Ukip, this legislation creates the possibility of some form of government having to limp on until 2020 without any guarantee of its Budget or legislative programme being passed.

Though some will argue that it will be up to politicians to accept the verdict of the most important jury of all – the court of public opinion – I, for one, think most people would be outraged if the outcome was deadlock. It would not be long before the economy faced potential paralysis.

There is one simple solution, however. Given that the fixed-term legislation was created in response to the unique and unprecedented circumstances of May 2010, it should be repealed when the current Parliament is dissolved.

If this happened, it would leave MPs elected to the Commons next May to control the country’s destiny rather than having their hands tied by past decisions that were taken for reasons of expediency – and no other reason.

HULL MP Alan Johnson’s candid memoir Please, Mister Postman – the sequel to his acclaimed book This Boy – provides a fascinating insight into the postal industry and how it tried to reform before Margaret Thatcher’s trade union reforms.

Johnson recalls attending a conference in which it was proposed that officials to the then postal workers’ union should stand for re-election. If it was good enough for Jimmy Carter, the then President of the USA, it was good enough for Britain.

Yet the motion was lost because of a barnstorming speech by union leader Tom Jackson who resisted change by saying he could be held to account at any time by a vote of no confidence. How political history could have been so different if moderate unions had led by instinct and reformed before Mrs Thatcher came to power.

One other vignette also offered a great insight into the 1970s – Mr Johnson, a widely-respected former Minister, says postmen would often give lifts to members of the public if they had an errand to run. He disclosed: “It’s said that when the writer and bon vivant Jeffrey Barnard exiled himself to the Devon countryside for a few years, he’d send a letter to himself every day so that when the postman called to deliver it, he could hitch a lift to the pub. Rural transport for the price of a stamp.”

How times change. Now some village hostelries have called last orders – while morning mail deliveries are a distant memory to many rural households.

IF George Osborne is serious about turning the North into “an economic powerhouse”, please can he ask his colleagues at Defra – the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – to ensure cities like Hull have adequate flood protection.

It comes after Hull MP Diana Johnson compared the Government’s swift response to last winter’s floods in Eton and along the Thames Valley to its “out of sight, out of mind” ambivalence to the damage inflicted on Hull by a tidal surge.

When she asked Defra Minister Dan Rogerson “what percentage of the promised assistance to flood-hit communities has actually gone to those affected?”, he pontificated before saying that some schemes “are still paying out and will do so until the end of the financial year”.

I note that the Minister did not disagree when Labour backbencher Barry Gardiner told the Commons that just £403,000 out of the £10m promised by the Government has been paid out – less than five per cent.

I DON’T think John Prescott is in a position to lecture the Tories about the implementation of their rail revolution for the North.

He says the plans formed the centrepiece of Labour’s 2004 Northern Way strategy as he accused the Chancellor of presiding over a “Tory Northern Delay”.

If Lord Prescott’s plan was so meritorious, why was it not advanced by the last Labour government? It had six years to act.

A QUESTION. Should the Broad Acres be known as God’s own county – or God’s own country? Welcome to Yorkshire tourism supremo Gary Verity says it is definitely the former – and he should know – but there’s certainly a case to be made for the latter, following the region’s successful staging of the Tour de France’s Grand Départ. After all, Yorkshire is already bigger – and more successful – than some EU countries and already contributes more to Great Britain plc than each of the Celtic nations.

BOTH the Chancellor and Lord Prescott will know the Right Reverend James Jones, who is a regular passenger on the desperately overcrowded TransPennine Express service. The one-time Bishop of Hull is the distinguished Bishop of Liverpool and he made a profound point on Radio Four’s Thought For The Day on Monday.

Noting the number of southern students who study at the North’s great universities, he wants the banks to play a more active role in helping these theatres of learning to launch start-up companies so graduates taught in Yorkshire have even more reason to stay in these parts.

The Bishop’s message was this: “I came. I saw. I stayed.” I hope his message is heeded.