Brown: No mention of that e-word

The prime minister chose to keep open the option of a snap general election. And he set out the main elements of an election platform in a conference speech EDP political editor Chris Fisher found worthy but lacking in flair.

The prime minister chose yesterday to keep open the option of a snap general election. And he set out the main elements of an election platform in a conference speech EDP political editor Chris Fisher found worthy but lacking in flair.

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The e-word did not once pass the prime minister's lips. There was no mention of an election in his address to the Labour Party conference. But the thought cannot long have been out of his mind in recent days as the winds have blown in his favour and close advisers have increased the pressure to go for a quick kill of the new Tory fox.

Does his complete reticence on the subject yesterday mean that he is rejecting their thinking and that there won't be an election next month or in early November? No. It would have taken just a few seconds for him to destroy the idea and stop all the conjecture. He chose not to do so.

The content of much of the speech did a passable imitation, moreover, of a draft of an election manifesto. And it couldn't have been much less riveting if Mr Brown had stood in front of the delegates (and the nation) and read from such a document.

He concentrated on education and the NHS, and he will seek to place most emphasis on these policy areas if there is a general election.

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There were some interesting commitments. To one-to-one tuition for 300,000 children in English and 300,000 in maths, for example. And to a regular NHS check-up for every adult. But interesting rather than enthralling. There was no new 'big idea', and nothing to grip the imagination.

“Sometimes people say I am too serious … and maybe that's true”, said Mr Brown. Actually, there's no maybe about it. Mr Brown's words at this point were not exactly drowned out in a chorus of denials by his many close supporters in the audience.

This was not a speech Tony Blair would have made. There would have been more light and shade from him and, for the first time in quite a while, the delegates probably missed him as Mr Brown droned worthily on.

Mr Blair was actually mentioned three times - which was three times more than David Cameron, the Tories as a whole or the Liberal Democrats. The prime minister may soon be locked in election campaign combat with them, but yesterday he endeavoured to damn them by ignoring them.

Iraq and Afghanistan were referred to only once - with Mr Brown promising to “do our duty and discharge our obligations” - and president Bush was left to make do with a comment that the US is “our closest ally”.

The PM also spoke only fleetingly of the EU. But there was no commitment to a referendum on the constitutional treaty, and he spoke of being “good Europeans”.

In doing that he was living dangerously. For it was possibly enough to upset Rupert Murdoch, whose Sun threatened yesterday not to back Labour in an election unless Mr Brown promises to have a referendum on the EU constitution.

Mr Brown did allow himself to say “New Labour”. And there was quite a lot in the speech to underline why he has been proving more difficult to the Conservatives than they had supposed. “I am proud to be British. I believe in British values. My father and my mother taught me about family and the great virtues of hard work, doing your duty and always trying to do the right thing.” This plays well with many Tory-inclined people.

Similarly with his repeated references to aspiration. As in: “Today the rising aspirations of the British people summon us to set a new direction.” And: “I stand for a Britain where all families who work hard can build a better life for themselves and their children.”

Now his big speech is over, the electoral calculating possibly has another couple of weeks to run.

If there is to be an October 25 poll, he has to announce it by next Tuesday (October 2).

To do so at the last moment or a day earlier as the Tories are holding their conference in Blackpool might be tempting. The undercurrents of discontent in Conservative ranks might be brought more to the surface.

On the other hand, such a move could unite the Tories, and Mr Cameron's end-of-conference speech on Wednesday could prove an electrifying start to his election campaign.

Mr Brown could decide to wait a further week. If he were to set his sights on November 1 rather than October 25, he need not make an announcement until October 9. By then the Commons will have just returned from the summer recess, and that would assist in the tying up of parliamentary loose ends that occurs when a general election is called.

Choosing this option would leave the Tories on tenterhooks right through their conference, and that might be very sensible from Mr Brown's point of view. If, moreover, Mr Cameron delivered a brilliant speech after a good conference, the PM would be able to pull back and keep his finger away from the button for an autumn poll.

He will certainly be spending a lot more time over the next few days weighing up the pros and cons.

The main positive arguments for him include the desirability of having his own direct mandate as prime minister. There is no constitutional necessity for this as we do not have a presidential system in this country.

But Mr Brown is very conscious that many members of the electorate do not fully understand or like this, and that they feel he has somehow sneaked into No 10 by the back door.

He would feel more secure if he won an election as prime minister, and recent opinion polls and council by-elections have produced a feeling in top Labour circles that there is no time like the present.

It might be a long time before the polls are this good for him again. Indeed, it might never happen. So, why not make use now of his prime ministerial prerogative, go to the country in apparently favourable conditions, give the Tories another big kicking and win a landslide majority?

Yes, but it might not work out like that. Things could go badly wrong.

The opinion poll lead is hardly overwhelming. Foot and mouth or bluetongue disease could turn much nastier. Labour is likely to lose seats to the SNP in Scotland. And the Sun might decide to send up blue smoke rather than red from its Wapping chimney.

Mr Brown kept his options open yesterday. But he can't for much longer.