Brown might just steal a March as he ponders election date
IS IT 25 March? 6 May? Or 3 June? These are the dates ringed in red as speculation grows over the date of the next general election. Early June is the last possible date on which Gordon Brown can go to the country. Given his stubborn grip on power, the latest possible date is argued by some as the most likely. However, this would be to overlook the local elections to be held on 6 May.
It would make no sense for the government to delay a general election beyond the local council elections as these would be widely seen as a key indicator of the general election result. Labour would gain nothing from a local result showing a setback. On this argument, the debate about general election timing is realistically between 6 May and 25 March.
The case for May is threefold. It gives Labour more time in which to raise vitally needed funds. It gives constituencies time to establish their candidate's name and credentials and build local support. And it would allow more time for an economic recovery, however faltering, to feed through to higher business and household confidence. The sense of an upturn would, it is hoped, be more marked, and help the Labour cause.
But the case for 25 March is growing. This would avoid the need for a "holding" spring budget, which must be held not later than 5 April. There is no money to give away in the form of pre-election bribes. And such a skeleton budget could do little other than to remind voters of the dire state of the public finances. As for economic recovery, unemployment is a "lag" indicator and is still thought likely to rise for most of next year, undermining the case for delay.
Finally, an early election would avoid the sense of entrapment that engulfed the last months of the Callaghan government and may be the best hope for Labour to take advantage of the recent narrowing of the Conservative lead in the polls. The latest Yougov poll, published yesterday, shows Labour narrowing the Conservative lead to nine points. Since the Conservatives need a swing of 10 per cent to secure the barest majority, this poll sets the country on course for an outcome far better than Labour had dared to hope just a few weeks ago – a hung parliament – but also the result most feared by the markets, making a stern post-election budget a certainty.
The poll runes are by no means unanimous. A Comres poll published at the weekend suggests the Conservative lead has increased to 17 points – 41 per cent to 24 per cent. For good measure, a recent third poll had Labour as close as 6 per cent behind. However, the key point for Labour is that anything less than a 10 per cent Conservative lead would give it a fighting chance and would help galvanise core supporters who might otherwise be disinclined to bother if the result looked like a certain Conservative win.
So the March date has momentum. To become compelling, Labour's catch-up needs to be more marked and evident in the polls. The coming weeks will be crucial in divining the public mood. The trap for the Gordon Brown is that, having famously dithered two years ago, he dare not be seen dithering twice. It's edging ever closer to Make Your Mind Up time.
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