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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.