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4 October 2007

The big decision

Martin Bright on the calculations that guided Gordon Brown through the election fever and led him to

By Martin Bright

Courage. It is quality that both obsesses and torments Gordon Brown. He has now written two books on the subject: a series of profiles of his political heroes and a companion volume on ordinary people who have shown extraordinary bravery.

But as he prepares to take the most momentous decision of his political life – whether or not to call a snap election this autumn – he will need all the inspiration he can muster. The Tory conference was not the car crash some expected it to be. David Cameron may not have pulled off the best speech of his career, but it was impressive enough to rally the troops. Brown is no longer fighting a Conservative Party in disarray.

Despite Brown’s reputation as the most successful political streetfighter of his generation, his political career has been dogged by a single nagging suspicion. Is he a “bottler”?

When John Smith died in 1994, should he have held his nerve and faced down the challenge from Tony Blair? Many in his inner circle still feel he should not have bent to pressure to stand aside. Then, through the bitter days of the Blair-Brown struggles, the chancellor’s courage was often called into question, although some would argue that his dogged patience was a form of bravery in itself, eventually rewarded with the top job after a ten-year wait. But there were also the highly corrosive charges that he would absent himself at moments of crisis for the government.

As Prime Minister, Brown has surprised many people, including those in his own party who did not believe he had it in him. His handling of the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, the foot-and-mouth crisis and the summer floods was decisive (as Brown himself was quick to suggest in his speech to Labour’s conference, as he paid tribute to the fortitude of the British people).

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As his team make their final calculations, the polling analysis being carried out in Labour’s election bunker is the most sophisticated yet. Thanks to the technology of the specialist software Mosaic, Labour has long been able to segment the population into dozens of social categories. The information they have built up (akin to the information supermarket chains hold on us), means the party’s election literature will be carefully tailored to voters, be they “new-town materialists” or “urban intellectuals”, according to the colourful labels of the polling world. Richard Webber, the creator of Mosaic, has been saying for some time that the message produced by the software (when matched with polling information) is that the Labour heartlands are growing ever more disillusioned with conventional politics. These groups, with names such as “Coronation Street”, “white van culture”, “rust belt resilience” and “older right-to-buy”, were as much Brown’s target as was Middle England. “British jobs for British people” was meant for both. Although these Mosaic groups are not usually associated with marginal seats, they could make the difference in a close vote and represent many of the millions who abandoned Labour at the last election.

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Although I am told the decision on whether to call an election remains on a knife edge, the more personal the attacks by the media or Tory politicians become, the more likely it is that Brown will call an election. He was particularly hurt by the suggestion in the Times that his conference speech was plagiarised from American Democrat politicians. One aide said: “The behaviour of the Tories and some sections of the media shows they are already electioneering. Why should Gordon put up with another six months of this when he can’t fight back?”

At times since the Labour conference, the PM has been in a state of barely controlled fury. I am told this grew to a crescendo during the conference speech by the shadow defence spokes man, Liam Fox. If Britain does go to the polls, the following passage may turn out to be the tipping point: “You, Prime Minister – in your self-indulgent, plagiarised, 67-minute speech, how much did you dedicate to Iraq, Afghanistan and our armed forces? One hundred and twenty-six words. One hundred and twenty-six words. One word for every two servicemen or women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Slur on his name

Cameron’s decision to devote significant parts of his speech to highly personal slurs on Brown’s character will also have stiffened the Prime Minister’s resolve. Ridiculing his Scottish pronunciation of “Bournemouth” and repeating the charge of plagiarism may well please the Tory heartlands, but it will also have made an early election more likely.

These attacks mark the final breakdown in the tentative bipartisan approach of the early months of Brown’s premiership. Opposition solidarity over the failed terror attacks continued during the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth and the floods, but no further. When Brown’s unexpected popularity began seriously to hurt the Tories in the polls, the attacks began. During the second outbreak of foot-and-mouth and the Northern Rock crisis, the Conservatives returned to what they do best (and some would argue is their proper role): attacking the government. But Brown does not forgive easily, and the Tories’ behaviour made an autumn poll more likely. The anti-Brown rhetoric in Blackpool may have served to rally the faithful; it may also have bumped Brown into a snap election that he is still likely to win.

Yet, even now, some wise heads within the Brown camp are advising caution. They say the Tory conference pledges, such as the cut in inheritance tax, will unravel further in coming months. Nor is it quite the case that younger members of his circle are urging him to go to the polls while more senior colleagues urge caution. One Brownite MP close to the process who supports an autumn election could still rattle off a series of reasons why it would be a bad idea. “On the face of it there’s no need to do it – we still have two and a half years. Things might get even worse for the Tories and people might well ask why we are making them do this.” Add to that concerns about a poor turnout on a dark November evening, which would inevitably affect the Labour vote, and it’s easy to see why some MPs in marginal seats are urging Brown to wait until spring. On the other hand, Labour strategists have begun to ask a straight question of MPs and candidates in marginal seats: “If we called an election now would you win?” And a resounding “yes” is coming back.

Then there is the so-called “Ashcroft money”, the fortune being spent by the party’s vice-chairman on target seats in marginal constituencies. A report in the Sunday Telegraph on the eve of the Tory conference suggested Lord Ashcroft had already spend £10m on campaigning before the election had even started. As I first wrote here in April, the name Michael Ashcroft sends a chill through Labour MPs with small majorities, whose ability to hold on to their seats will decide the next election, whenever it comes. At Labour’s gathering in Bournemouth, you couldn’t move for MPs in huddles talking about “the Ashcroft money”. The fear is real. During the first three months of 2005 Ashcroft paid nearly £300,000 in donations to 33 candidates in marginal constituencies. The results were staggering: 11 of the candidates unseated Labour candidates and five vulnerable Conservative MPs were saved. This time around, Ashcroft has refined his attack to an even smaller group of seats, and Brown knows the effects could be far more serious than in 2005.

In the past few weeks, the three-way traffic between MPs in marginal seats, Downing Street and Labour high command has intensified, with opinion shifting in favour of a snap election. Even before Cameron stood up in Blackpool to make his speech some were talking as if the decision had already been made. Emily Thornberry, who narrowly won the Islington South and Finsbury seat in 2005, told the NS: “We were working towards an election on 4 May. It came as a bit of a surprise. In a way it would have been good if it was later: the longer to fight them off, the better. Now I’ve got over the shock, I’m fine – if we’re going to win.”

The “if” still lingers. Because the results in the marginal seats are unpredictable, a dip in the polls for Labour could still result in a hung parliament (in effect a devastating defeat for Brown and a victory for Cameron). It may still be possible for the Prime Minister to resist the momentum for a November poll, but he now has all his ducks in place. His long-awaited statement on Iraq was in effect brought forward to coincide with his visit to Basra, with the Comprehensive Spending Review and a significant announcement on the NHS also rescheduled to allow for an announcement on Tuesday.

All that remains is the decision itself. It is likely to obsess and torment him in equal measure. In this context his own personal definition of the courage of his heroes is interesting: “It was not just risk-taking, and definitely not risk-taking in a doubtful cause . . . It was an expression of both strength of character and strength of belief.”

Over the next month, whatever he decides, Brown’s character will be tested like never before. So which is more courageous? To call a snap election and risk being the shortest-serving Prime Minister in living memory, or to hold off and risk being called a bottler?

Derek Wyatt MP(Sittingbourne and Sheppey – majority 79) “I’m not in favour of an early election. I’d have preferred a Queen’s Speech but I sense it may be too late.”

Paul Clark (Gillingham and Rainham – maj 254) “I am quite happy whenever Gordon wants to call it.”

Martin Linton (Battersea – maj 163) “If he wants to get a fresh mandate that’s a good reason but it’s not the norm to have an election whenever we have a change of PM.”

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh South – maj 405) “We’ve had the best four months campaigning outside an election since the poll tax. I’ll have a 2,500-3,000 majority if the PM goes now.”

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate – maj 3,729) “It’s not the preferred option but it looks like there’s going to be one.”