Election pressure keeps on rising

It's been a good week for Gordon Brown. He's even won praise from Lord Tebbit. And, says political editor Chris Fisher, the pressure for a general election he may have never wanted goes on rising.

It's been a good week for Gordon Brown. He's even won praise from Lord Tebbit. And, says political editor Chris Fisher, the pressure for a general election he may have never wanted goes on rising.

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As he leaves Bournemouth today the prime minister should be telling himself that the Labour conference went as well as could be reasonably expected.

He has been given a bashing by the Sun over one issue - his refusal to have a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. And his speech confirmed that he is not in the same league as Tony Blair when it comes to conference oratory. But despite these factors, his and his party's popularity has gone up again.

A YouGov poll published yesterday put Labour on 44pc and the Tories on 33pc. Such figures would put Gordon Brown into landslide victory territory if repeated in a general election.

So will there be one soon? That question was dodged again by the prime minister in a Q&A session (that was really more like a party political broadcast) at the conference yesterday. But in declining to kill it, he has let its dominance of the political scene get stronger and stronger.

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It is possible that Mr Brown has never intended to have an election this autumn, and that he has allowed the speculation to endure and build just to cause turbulence inside the Tory Party.

If so, the strategy has been succeeding in terms of that objective. The Conservatives are turning on themselves again. But has Mr Brown released a genie that cannot be returned to the bottle? Is there now so much expectation of, and momentum towards, a November election that he will have to proceed with an election he may never have sought and still doesn't really want?

There was a big note of warning for him even in the YouGov poll, for only 29pc of the people asked actually favoured an election this autumn.

That figure is down from 51pc when he became PM in June. So it would seem that as voters have come to trust and like him more in his new job, they have seen less and less of a need for an early general election.

This presents him with a conundrum. Would he sacrifice some - and perhaps quite a lot - of the additional support he has won if he opted for an unnecessary general election held only two-and-a-half years since the last one? Or is his reputation now so strong that he would be forgiven for calling an election that only a modest minority of voters want?

We can now rule out, I think, an October 25 poll. For an election to take place that day, Mr Brown would have to press the button by next Tuesday - and that, it seems, is not going to happen.

He will apparently wait until next week's Tory conference has run its course, and then finally make up his mind over the weekend of October 6/7.

By then there will be polling evidence of whether or not David Cameron has experienced a lift from his party's conference. If so, Mr Brown and his advisers would need to make a judgment about whether such a shift was just a temporary phenomenon. In the meantime, they will be studying whether the rise for Labour in the YouGov poll is just a blip reflecting all the publicity for the party this week.

The PM has also been buoyed up by comments from former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit which were only a whisker away from saying: “Vote for Brown, and not Cameron.”

Arguing that Mr Cameron and his closest allies - including several fellow Old Etonians - are vulnerable to a charge that “they don't know how the other half lives”, he told the Times: “David and his colleagues - the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days - are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever.”

By contrast, there was skilfully crafted praise for Mr Brown, and especially so for his recent meeting with Baroness Thatcher in 10 Downing Street.

It “was Gordon Brown at his very best; a wonderful mixture of his courtesy and his political nous”, he declared. “After all, Cameron described himself as the 'heir to Blair'; it's only natural that Brown should make himself the 'heir to Thatcher'. It's the perfect response, isn't it?”

Lord Tebbit also refuted the notion that Lady Thatcher had been mentally frail in meeting Mr Brown. “I'm quite sure that Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing. She's first too well-mannered to rebuff the prime minister and second, of course, the present Conservative leadership has been at great pains to distance himself from her - and she is, after all, a woman.”

These comments add to the impression that Lady Thatcher's meeting with Mr Brown was thoroughly choreographed by herself and her closest supporters.

There are persistent rumours of more defections to Labour today or just before the Tory conference. And if true, that will be much more fascinating than an end of Labour conference speech by Harriet Harman.

The party's deputy leader is a very different creature from John Prescott. Barnstorming speeches are not exactly her forte.

So, might there be a big surprise finale? “Colleagues, Our last conference speaker will be… Lord Tebbit”? Why stop there? Might there be another big appearance by Lady Thatcher, in that red coat?

t Eastern region MEP Richard Howitt has come out strongly against a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty.

“Over my dead body”, he replied yesterday when asked if there should be one.

The prime minister is under sustained pressure to agree to a referendum. A campaign for one has support stretching from the Sun to some trade unions and left-wing Labour MPs.

Mr Howitt - the sole Labour MEP for the eastern region - believes that Gordon Brown should resist such calls and is confident he will.

“The agenda here is to get Britain out of Europe, and I don't think we should give ground to that argument”, he said at the Labour conference.

“The treaty isn't a constitution. All aspects of statehood - including an anthem and flag - to which people objected have been removed.

“I believe the government is absolutely determined to ratify the European treaty, and I think that is right.”

Mr Howitt also said he regretted that Tony Blair had bowed, when prime minister, to pressure to agree to a referendum on the original EU constitution.