Softly softly catchee Tories

Will he, won't he, will he, won't he call a general election soon? It remains unlikely, says political editor CHRIS FISHER. But there is advantage for the prime minister in keeping the Tories guessing, and he's also poaching their talent.

Will he, won't he, will he, won't he call a general election soon? It remains unlikely, says political editor CHRIS FISHER. But there is advantage for the prime minister in keeping the Tories guessing, and he's also poaching their talent.

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Gordon Brown wants “a new type of politics”. But there is no evidence that it would remove the prime minister's prerogative - within the statutory maximum of five years between general elections - to 'go to the country' when he sees fit.

That, of course, essentially means choosing to call an election when there is at the very least a good chance of winning it, and deciding not to when the outlook is uncertain or worse.


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But like many of his predecessors, Mr Brown prefers to cloak the crude realpolitik of this key electoral power in grand and even statesmanlike garb. Hence the dancing round the issue that occurred - ever so predictably - when he was interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme yesterday.

Asked if there were going to be a general election this autumn, the prime minister said: “There will be no announcement today. There will be a time and a place for a general election, but it is not now.”

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So, was he ruling out an autumn poll? Mr Humphrys seemed initially to think he might be, but quickly - and correctly - changed his mind. Mr Brown wasn't ruling it in, and he wasn't ruling it out. And frankly it would have required considerable naivety to suppose seriously that he would do anything else.

For a start, even in this age of slavish devotion to broadcasters, announcements of decisions to call general elections are not announced first on the TV or radio. It would have been a colossal breach of protocol - causing great trepidation at Buckingham Palace, in the cabinet and among MPs generally - if Mr Brown had said: “Yes, John, I've decided to have a general election on October 4, and you're the first to know.”

Even to rule out a general election definitively in a radio interview would raise many eyebrows. In 1978 Jim Callaghan opted, more formally, for a televised address to the nation to announce that he had decided not to have an election.

Why, in any case, should Mr Brown want to close his options down at the present? There is a plain dilemma. He is conscious of having become prime minister without his own direct mandate from the people, and would like to put that right. But it is still only two years and four months since the last general election, and he does not want to throw away the 60-plus majority that contest delivered to his party.

He will call another election only if he is convinced that it will produce another majority at least as big as that one. And how can he be at the moment? The opinion polls are hardly a model of consistency. They are broadly favourable to him, and some give Labour leads of eight points and more. But others put it much tighter. One in yesterday's Independent put Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck on 36pc.

Mr Brown will keep a close eye on the polls as he works on his speech for the Labour conference later this month and his plans for the next two years or so in government. If a strong lead - of five points and more is restored and sustained - he might turn the conference into the effective launch of an election campaign. But I agree with Charles Clarke on this. It's a matter of possibility rather than probability. That's enough, however, to keep the Tories in almost a permanent state of agitation, and that gives Mr Brown another big reason for letting the speculation drag on.

In his Today interview he touched on the “keynote” speech he was about to make on his proposals for a new kind of politics. And he confirmed that he would be announcing further moves to draw on the talents of people from outside the Labour tent.

He had already persuaded Admiral Sir Alan West, Sir Digby Jones and Mark Malloch Brown to become ministers in his government. And now attachments to it have been made with Tory MPs Patrick Mercer and John Bercow and Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor in the form of advisory roles. Furthermore it emerged yesterday that the weekend resignation of Conservative deputy treasurer Johan Eliasch followed an approach by Mr Brown.

One might argue this is rather pale by comparison with the extraordinary coup performed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in securing the services of Bernard Kouchner of the Socialist Party as his foreign minister. But David Cameron must be getting quite seriously peeved.

As part of his search for a new politics “built on consensus”, the prime minister has openly called for a cross-party Speaker's Conference to consider ways of improving engagement in the political process and, specifically, higher turn-outs in elections.

His approaches to Mr Bercow and Mr Mercer were carried out behind the Tory leader's back, however. Is such behaviour really commensurate with a desire to construct a stronger political consensus?

It was presumably no accident that Mr Brown's interview and 'new politics' initiative came as British troops were completing a pull-out from the city of Basra, because most of the publicity for the government from events in Iraq is bad publicity.

He was keen to emphasise that it was not a defeat, that British forces would stay in the Basra area in the same numbers for the present and that they would still have an “overwatch” role. But is authority really being passed to the Iraqi army or to whichever militia force in the city that comes out on top?

There is increasing evidence, moreover, of strain between the White House and Downing Street as the US troop surge continues and Britain seems to be preparing to leave.

That, of course, could be an electoral plus for Mr Brown. But there are vulnerabilities in his position. They include the opposition to his refusal to have a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. And they also include the economic uncertainty stemming from the trouble in the US housing market.

The latter could well get much nastier before it getter better. That could be an argument for delaying an election for a year or more. It could also present a case for getting an election out of the way quickly.

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