So as predicted by this author, an autumn election is looking increasingly unlikely to take place following Brown’s announcement. A combination of a strong showing by the Conservatives at their party conference in Blackpool and some fairly transparent “announcements” by Gordon Brown (brilliantly exposed by Brown-basher-in-Chief, Dr Liam Fox) have led to the Conservatives pulling back an eleven-point lead in the polls, with even the Guardian now suggesting a dead-heat between the two major parties, at 38 points each.
The monumental extent of Labour’s crying wolf on a possible election was highlighted by a spluttering Jack Straw on this morning’s Today programme, who endeavoured to assure listeners that an election was merely being considered, but quickly ruled out due to the “lack of public appetite” for a poll. Ha. It has not escaped the attention of the author that Brown strategists Ed Balls and Doug Alexander were seen throughout Labour’s own conference – often in the presence of Brown himself – openly suggesting that the election could be sooner than people think. No wonder that the Tories and the Lib Dems have labelled the somewhat misnomerous author of “Courage”: “Bottler Brown” and “the Great Clucking Fist”.
All of which has left Gordon Brown with some thinking to do – which inevitably means that there is hard work ahead for the Conservatives.
Yes, the Tories had a great conference – certainly the most exciting and enjoyable this author has ever attended (and in Blackpool, too – some feat). In particular, Osborne’s proposal to increase of the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, and the abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers of properties under £250,000 have been greeted with support from middle-England, a key battleground for any future election. Some seriously good policy proposals from the likes of Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Pauline Neville-Jones, plus David Cameron’s 68-minute speech without notes will also have Brown getting nervous before Wednesday’s PMQs (never an area in which Brown has excelled).
But this is exactly the point where Brown will HAVE to come out fighting.
In his (sycophantic) interview with Andrew Marr earlier today, Brown insisted he would have won a snap election. Some might jeer at such protestations – but it was accurate. While this morning’s Daily Mail poll put the Tories ahead by three points (for the first time since Brown’s accession), history shows us that for a change in Government, Oppositions need to be ahead by a good six to eight points to have a fighting chance.
So why hasn’t Brown called the election, with the likelihood of a Labour victory even in the face of a Cameron bounce? It seems to this author that Brown’s legendary timidity in the face of adversity, plus insecurity as to his own position have caused a re-think. A reduced majority would be disastrous for Brown, who will need a bigger majority than Blair’s (who even in the post-Iraq tarnishment of 2005 still commanded a majority of 68) just to protect his own mandate within the Labour party – despite all the “no more Blairites, no more Brownites” hocus pocus of the Deputy Leadership election from Labour insiders, it is clear from the make-up of the current Cabinet that Blair’s young pretenders have not simply shrunk into the shadows of the Labour jungle.
It will also not have escaped Brown’s attention that the primary source of the Conservative upswing has not been Labour, but from the Liberal Democrats. For this reason, don’t be surprised if the Brown guns are trained on Ming Campbell in the hope that a few more disastrous performances will encourage either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne to wield the knife in order to save the party’s chances at the next election.
My expectation is that Brown will focus on the areas in which he does best, and push for a major policy programme in the next Parliament. In any case, Conservatives must take nothing for granted, and continue the progress of the conference. We now have the bones of a superb manifesto in place, with some exceptionally good policies before the voting public (assuming Brown doesn’t attempt to steal these and pass them off as his own). For this reason, we need to ensure that these policies are seen and heard by possible floating voters. With the LGA elections coming up next year and increasing demand for a referendum on the EU Treaty/constitution, there are plenty of opportunities to force Brown out on the issues if we hold our nerve.
And the author’s tip on the election? Place your bets for Spring 2009!