Page last updated at 15:32 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 16:32 UK

Is Cameron a revolutionary?

By Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent

As every school boy knows, the British constitution is unwritten.

Unlike the Americans and countless other imitators, we do not have a document with the stamp and authority of the founding fathers to guide us through the highways and by-ways of constitutional change.

In some ways, that makes the unthinkable more possible, unconstrained as we are by the rigidity of the printed word.

David Cameron
Mr Cameron says he wants 'big change' at Westminster

But convention can be equally powerful and it still takes a good deal to shift those structures and practices that have become embedded in our national institutions.

David Cameron seems intent on a shake-up, along with at least two cabinet ministers, including Alan Johnson who wants a referendum on proportional representation at the time of the next general election.

Many of Mr Cameron's ideas, set out in his speech to the Open University, have been floated before.

Text alerts

Giving parents and communities more power over schools and house building have been key themes of the Tory leader's premiership.

And ever since Ken Clarke's democracy task force reported, there has been plenty of talk about giving more power to MPs to hold ministers to account and even reducing the numbers of MPs at Westminster.

There are also some easy wins: so putting Parliament on YouTube will face no resistance; nor will sending out text messages to the public, letting them know where a particular bill is in its Parliamentary passage (let's see how many sign up for that one).

The real question is whether the public will buy the idea that constitutional reform is a panacea for the current difficulties

But his new thought for the day is the fixed term Parliament; not a commitment to a fixed term Parliament, but the promise to give it "serious consideration".

On the face of it, it seems attractive.

Like the farming out of decisions on interest rates to the Bank of England, why not depoliticise the timing of elections, remove that fact of the pre-election giveaway (though there's no chance of one of those this time round) and allow everyone to set their watches by the date of the next poll.

But as Mr Cameron knows only too well, there are difficulties with such an idea.

Election calls

First of all, how does it chime with the idea of giving more power back to the people?

Isn't there a danger that the people will merely see it as giving those pesky politicians a guaranteed time in power, however badly they are doing?

Secondly, Mr Cameron has made much in recent weeks of his call for a general election now - Gordon Brown, he says, is an unelected prime minister.

But Mr Brown has a year to run on his government's mandate, so David Cameron runs the risk of it looking like he is trying to have his cake and eat it.

The other difficulty for Mr Cameron is that he is a Conservative - in other words, his party is not traditionally identified with radical constitutional change.

And you can expect to hear a great deal from the Labour Party, pointing out that the Tories opposed devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and House of Lords reform.

But the real question is whether the public will buy the idea that constitutional reform is a panacea for the current difficulties.

Can they be persuaded that the political nadir we have now reached can be remedied by fixing the roof?

Or will the people end up concluding that the rot comes from within?



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