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The curse of Callaghan

The G20 is over and Labour is still behind in the polls. So why are cabinet ministers considering an

Could Gordon Brown call an election this year rather than next? To my surprise, several cabinet ministers have raised the possibility with me recently. Perhaps this giddy ministerial excitement has been brought on by the hint of spring in the air and will soon pass. Even so, they made a compelling case.

Each of them suggested that the key to the timing of a possible election was for Labour to secure a rating of roughly 35 per cent in the polls for a short length of time. (I should stress that this was not some kind of “spin” operation. On the whole, any election talk with journalists is banned, after what happened in the “non-election” fiasco of early autumn 2007, when some ministers talked themselves into a nightmarish trap.) I had been asking ministers about the prospect of a small bounce for Brown and what might happen if he got one. They pointed out in response that if Labour managed to gain poll ratings in the mid-thirties, a general election could produce a favourable outcome, a hung parliament at the least – which is the limit of most ministers’ electoral ambition.

At the same time they are aware of the immense disadvantages of hanging on, hoping for something to turn up, until the bitter end in 2010. Quite often a government in that position can find itself receiving more unpleasant than pleasant surprises. Jim Callaghan famously clung on until virtually the last possible moment in 1979, when he was forced to call an election after losing a vote of confidence in the Commons. There are still ministers from that era who are convinced that if Callaghan had called an election in autumn 1978 he would have won. I doubt it. The course was set, and the unstoppable “sea change” that he detected in 1979 was already in motion a few months earlier. Nonetheless, his experiences still show that hanging on as the clock ticks can be calamitous, even if Brown would be doing so with a much more secure Commons majority.

The other argument I have heard about going to the country this year rather than next is that if Brown is able to get one more bounce, even a small one, it would almost certainly be the last. There is a limit to how many times a prime minister can bounce up and down. This applies even to Brown, a political figure who has bounced more than most over the years. In other words, they argue that his and Labour’s poll ratings could get much worse next year.

There are strong arguments against such optimistic talk. Most obviously, the economy’s green shoots are still few and far between and it will be many months before their blooms become visible. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is now warning that we should not expect an upturn before the end of the year. If he is correct, ministers might have the chance to associate themselves with the odd green shoot during an election in May 2010, but not until then.

The state of the British economy will be the main factor in the election outcome. G20 summits are important but, as Gordon Brown admits privately, he has yet to find a language that connects his global initiatives to the lives of voters here. His more candid ministerial allies, such as Peter Mandelson and Ed Balls, have told him he must find ways of doing so. They point out that some of the technical language deployed at the summit was incomprehensible to most people. I saw an interview with Brown a few weeks ago where even the interviewer interrupted to say he did not understand what Brown was saying. There is no point in talking if the words do not convey a clear meaning to voters who are alarmed by the economic situation and seeking a simple explanation for it.

In addition, there is another twist to take into account – not directly connected to the economy, and yet bound to it, in the sense that together they are more explosive than they are apart. The revelations about MPs’ expenses form a story with unpredictable consequences. When all the receipts are published, probably in July, they could cause mayhem, as voters contrast the apparent greed of their local MPs with their own more precarious prospects. So far cabinet ministers have been at the centre of the storm, but at least they have probably stayed within the absurd rules. What will happen if it emerges that some MPs broke the rules? Presumably they will have to resign. This will be a big rolling story for months, and there will certainly be no election speculation while it is raging.

There is also the possibility that Labour does not secure poll ratings in the mid-thirties for any sustained period of time, or any time at all. The first poll to be published after the G20 gave Brown a mini-bounce, reducing the Tories’ lead over Labour to 7 points. The second suggested there had been no bounce all. These were hardly findings to propel speculation about an election. I also get no sense in No 10 that Brown’s thoughts are moving in that direction. He has been too immersed in the economic crisis to be contemplating a campaign. I am also told that Brown has no naive euphoria about the electoral benefits of having hosted the recent gathering of the G20 nations in London.

Whenever he chooses to go to the country, historians will have much cause to reflect on the impact of elections on Brown’s leadership – when one was held and when one was not. Indeed, Brown’s entire bizarre leadership has been shaped as much by elections as by the economic crisis. The mistake in the early autumn of 2007 was not to consider an election but for his entourage publicly to stoke the speculation. Brown was right not to call one then, not least because, by the time he made the decision in October, he might well have lost. Yet, by allowing the speculation to rage, he let the issue become a defining one, blowing apart his early strategy, which was to project himself as a consensual prime minister who transcended party politics.

After the summer Brown will inevitably return to this treacherous terrain whether he wants to or not. John Major discovered that the talk of his going to the Queen was so intense that he formally had to rule out an autumn election in 1991. Jim Callaghan made his announcement in a special party election broadcast in September 1978. Major chose a different route, having one of his ministers brief the then political editor of Channel 4 News, Elinor Goodman.

As no one at the BBC watched her subsequent report, the corporation’s main bulletin that night included no reference to what was a huge story at the time. Not that it mattered especially. The rest of the world knew that the election was off, and Major went on to win the following year.

I think the dilemma for Brown is that, if he goes on to the bitter end, unlike Major, he is doomed to lose; and yet it is quite hard to envisage a period this year when the poll ratings would be remotely safe enough for him to call an election. Nonetheless, I suspect if Labour makes it to the mid-thirties it would be in Brown’s interests to go for it. There would be many ironies to consider, as he would be further behind in the polls than he was when he postponed the election in 2007. But he would have served as PM for much longer, and so defeat this autumn would not be as humiliating as it would have been after only a few months in office.

Maybe these hints of spring are making fools of us all. For the first time, however, I can see the case, from Brown’s perspective, for going to the country this year – even if Labour is lagging behind in the polls.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009