A serious unforced tactical error from Gordon Brown. For want of an original phrase: one of the longest weeks in politics has just passed. Imagine how much better Brown’s position would be now had he ruled out an early election on the Friday or Saturday after the Labour conference, rather than waiting for the near-certain Tory poll boost following their conference. Muppet.
So, certainly a few days of awful media coverage and possibly longer-term damage to his reputation. But let’s keep in mind exactly what it is that we’ve learned about Brown from this episode:
He is a politician.
He’s joined the long list of prime ministers who have considered calling an unnecessarily early election that they thought they were likely to win; and he’s joined the shorter list of those who then decided not to as it started to look as though they might not win.
(The fact that we’ve come to think that a four-year term isn’t unnecessarily long shows how widespread the practice has become.)
The ‘bottling’ – as we’re legally obliged to call it – was only a U-turn in the Keynesian sense (“When the facts change, I change my mind”). Yellow is the new Brown only if a desire to avoid suicide is cowardice.
The whole thing, though, is deeply unedifying and was badly thought through, and he deservedly looks stupid. But the suggestions of impropriety – ‘playing politics with the constitution’ and all that – are rubbish. All he’s actually done is to allow media speculation to rumble on and to keep the opposition in a state of uncertainty. Oh, and he’s shifted the timing of a couple of announcements whose timing was his to decide anyway.
True, he’s not been frank about his reasons for declining the option, but then nor has David Cameron been frank about whether an early ‘mandate’ election is needed (when at the 2005 election he’d said that “if you vote Labour you get Blair, you get Brown… So it doesn't matter whether you have Blair or Brown”). And dear old Ming Campbell has now proved himself as slippery as – well, as a Lib Dem, in now calling for fixed election dates when he had previously urged Brown to call an early election.
There’s disingenuous cant on all sides.
(The only occasion of truly dishonourable, partisan election timing that I can r call is John Major in 1997. Yes, he went the full five years – in the hope that somehow, Labour’s massive poll lead might diminish – but the skulduggery came in the detail. Major prorogued Parliament unusually early – well before its formal dissolution – which halted the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey. This meant that Downey’s potentially humiliating report into the cash-for-questions scandal couldn’t be published until safely after the election.)
Anyway. Did anybody really fancy canvassing and leafleting in the cold?