Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A self-fulfilling prophesy

Even a few short weeks ago, the decided view in Westminster was that Brown was no gambler. He had waited ten years to gain the crown from Blair and wasn't about to risk all with an early election. With three years to run, he would go full term and call an election for the late spring of 2010.

The insistent murmuring from the media, however, is now building in intensity, with the Times today devoting a long leader to the timing of an early election, suggesting that, if Brown does go to the country, the best moment is early November.

That, by conventional wisdom, would break all the rules. With lengthening nights, the cold creeping in and people recovering from summer spending excesses while facing up to Christmas, they lack the optimism associated with Spring. Therefore, they tend to punish the incumbent who dares drag them to the polls and makes them think of the future.

With the polls currently giving Labour a clear lead, some even suggesting that Brown could increase his majority, the electoral calculus is shifting in favour of an early election, aided and abetted by what seems to be a meltdown in the Conservative camp.

Prime minister Brown, on the other hand, is consorting with the great and good – first Bush, then Clinton and then in the United Nations - presenting himself as the serious statesman, not least as the logjam on Darfur seems to have been broken and the Security Council has resolved to send 26,000 troops to the region – and event which is being projected as a triumph for Brown.

This leaves a diminished David Cameron, seemingly enmeshed in petty squabbles with his own Party, losing support rapidly and coming over as a tetchy lightweight. It seems almost impossible that he should be able to regain the lustre of his extended honeymoon, especially as the media are showing every sign of having turned against him.

Thus does the Times argue that Brown should wait for the Conservative Party conference when David Cameron will make his near-inevitable demand that he go to the country as soon as possible and then seek the dissolution of Parliament with the ballot held on November 1 (or perhaps 8). If Labour were to sweep to its fourth term in such circumstances, its opponents could not cry: "We were robbed."

But then the paper takes a surprising turn. Reviewing the "final intense deliberations over the EU treaty (constitution)" it argues that Brown cannot credibly dismiss a referendum if the end product did not safeguard British interests in a truly unambiguous fashion. But, it says, bargaining on the specifics of the text is likely, realistically, to continue to the end of this year. Brown could ask for a national mandate through an election before that point, and thus be more flexible about the referendum question which would not dominate the preelection debate in such conditions.

This is an odd assertion as the IGC summit is expected in mid October, when the final details are to be agreed. Therefore, unless The Times knows something we don't, its projected timetable would have the prime minister going to agree an EU treaty at the start of the election period, putting the EU high on the electoral agenda.

Again, the conventional wisdom is that no incumbent will want to go to the country with "Europe" as a central issue, in which case, Brown would be forced to concede a referendum.

However, if the Tory Party troubles do develop into a full-blown meltdown, then Brown might be confident enough to frame a new manifesto, supporting the "not-the-constitution" treaty, thereby negating the current accusation that he has broken a manifesto promise. He could then almost provoke Cameron into supporting a referendum, in the knowledge that his rapidly fading star could be contemptuously ignored.

Another factor – which has not yet been rehearsed – is that, with "Europe" high on the agenda, UKIP might be expected to do well, dragging sufficient votes from the Conservatives to make the difference. With UKIP widely credited with having cost the Tories 26 seats in the last election, a stronger showing could keep Brown in power.

It may be, therefore, that the roar of the media may create a self-fulfilling prophesy, sucking Brown into an early election campaign – but one in which he would have no need to offer an EU referendum. That would be a dark time for Eurosceptics, and one which is no longer looking unlikely.

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