Why an early election is looking less likely

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor An autumn general election seemed to be disappearing from the radar last night, says political editor Chris Fisher, as opinion polls showed the Tories closing in on Labour.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Health minister Lord Darzi was emphatic yesterday that publication of his report on improved access to GP services had not been brought forward and that there was no connection with an autumn general election.

The same is being said of a big report today on the crucial, and horribly delayed, Crossrail scheme for London. And, indeed, of the expected announcement next week of the Pre-Budget Report and of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which will set out the government's public expenditure plans through to 2011.

These assertions may well be true, moreover, for yesterday morning smoke signals started to come out of 10 Downing Street that the election is off. Why? There could be only one explanation: the PM had received his own polling evidence that Labour's lead over the Tories had closed substantially and that an election call would now be an unacceptably dangerous gamble.

This information was backed up by last night's poll findings on Channel 4 and by the ICM and Populus surveys in today's Guardian and Times.

Quite a few more polls will be out over the next couple of days. If they indicate that the initial post-Tory conference ones were an aberration, the election could be back on again. It has been suggested for some time that Mr Brown would not make up his mind until Sunday. But at the very least his public relations/spin machine seemed to be starting to prepare yesterday for the disclosure of a decision to abandon the election idea. Wisely so, it would seem.

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If this is confirmed, major spending and taxation news in the PBR and CSR next week could be used not to smooth the way to an election (or pave it with gold) but to cover the retreat from one.

One can easily imagine the prime minister stressing, to a bombardment of financial facts and figures, that he wants to concentrate on doing the job and running the country and avoid the flimflam of election talk. One assumes it would be said with a straight face.

He will be unable to avoid taunting and even ridicule, however, if he decides against an election. And he will have asked for it.

He has not merely allowed election conjecture to fizz and whirl week after week but has encouraged it. All along it would have taken only a succinct but firm and unambiguous statement from him to stop it. But it didn't come.

It suited his purpose to let it carry on. In the beginning he may well have wanted just to sow doubt and discord in Tory ranks; I strongly suspect so. But if he did not originally intend to call a general election this autumn, what happened? Did he discover, rather like Frankenstein, that he had created a monster he couldn't control? Or did he become seduced by a proposition from the dark side he had intended only to play about with?

He should have known better, and should not have let his head be turned. Someone as steeped as he in political and constitutional matters cannot have needed telling that the case for an election next month was very flimsy indeed. Two basic facts should have stopped the idea becoming a serious contender. The first is that it is only two years and five months since the last general election, and that our parliaments are elected for a maximum of five years. The second is that the government has a majority of 66 in the Commons and is in no danger of losing a confidence vote there.

The case for an election has rested on, and sought some respectability from, the notion that Mr Brown lacks a full mandate as prime minister because he was not elected to the post by the people. But as he knows full well, this is a fallacy based on a wrong or incomplete understanding of how British democracy works - or a belief that it ought to operate differently from the way it does.

For Mr Brown the principal attraction of an autumn election lay in realpolitik or expediency. The opinion polls were suggesting there was the opportunity for a landslide election victory, and there were reasons (including his political honeymoon and the outlook for the economy) for supposing such a chance might well not come again.

Seizing such a pretext for an election - while pretending there was a higher motivation - would not sit comfortably with the 'Not flash, just Gordon' image he wants. And the prime minister may be bruised and damaged by being seen first to flirt with the proposition and then to run away from it. Has this been an exhibition of good judgment? Or, indeed, courage?

The Conservative leader has cause to smile this morning as he contemplates the 'Cameron climb' in the polls.

It may be mainly a demonstration of volatility. It may last no longer than the extra 'Brown bounce' that came with the Labour conference. It is indeed possible that the prime minister would get another big lift if he went for it and used the Pre-Budget Report and the Comprehensive Spending Review to launch an election campaign.

But could he reasonably hope to win a Commons majority bigger than his present one? The chances of that look a lot smaller than those of seeing his party's majority wiped out (which would take just a 1pc swing).

The potential for pain seems greatly to exceed that for gain. As a gamble it would look rather like a kamikaze mission. Is non-flash Gordon really a man to do that?