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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.