Is Brown planning a March election?

Labour should avoid delaying an election until June

I've long thought that Gordon Brown should avoid the ignominy of an election at the last possible date (3 June). The parallels with John Major would be too uncomfortable.

So I'm not surprised to see a story in today's Telegraph suggesting that Brown could go to the polls on 25 March. Andrew Porter writes: "Some civil servants have noted that government planning for the period after the end of January is noticeably light, adding to suggestions that No 10 could be planning to call a surprise poll."

A Conservative source told him: "March is in our minds. Gordon Brown knows he still has a small window to cause some element of surprise.

"We are ready if it happens."

An early election would allow Labour neatly to avoid breaking its 2005 pledge not to raise income tax during this parliament. The 50p income-tax rate will take effect from April, raising the possibility that the Tories may be forced not merely to tolerate the tax, but actually to introduce it.

The Conservative civil war over Europe that many Labour activists hope for has so far failed to materialise (dissent has come from such token figures as Bill Cash and Barry Legg), but Brown could yet create the conditions for a Tory tax war.

The new tax rate is loathed by many Conservatives, including Boris Johnson, who has described it as an "assault on London" and has accused Labour of waging "class war". But David Cameron and George Osborne have made it clear that everyone must pay their "fair share". Labour should take the chance to expose these divisions in an election campaign.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.