Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A fatal miscalculation

If, like this blog, you feel that the election fever dominating the headlines started as mere idle speculation by the political hacks, bereft of their daily does of their Blair-Brown "soap opera", then the current situation takes on an aspect somewhat different from that being offered by the MSM.

In our scenario, Brown had no intention whatsoever of going to the country early but, as the press speculation developed, he let it run – by the simple expedient of not firmly denying it – and then fuelled it, by allowing his aides to leak "plans" of electoral preparations. The hope and expectation was that it would destabilise the Tories.

If that was the game plan that developed, then it is beginning to look as if it had seriously backfired. From being perceived as being in control of events, Brown now looks more like a passenger of them. Such is the momentum that, if Brown does not call an election in the next few days, he will be open to the charge of having "bottled out". But if he does, he will be committed to a late campaign, in the gathering gloom of the autumn, when spirits are low.

The Tories, on the other hand – far from falling apart – have recovered from their panic of the early part of the week. They have, almost miraculously, gained a new vigour and purpose from the prospect of an early election. Dissent has been set aside for the moment, and they are now genuinely looking forward to the contest. Not least, they have calculated that, even if they do lose, anything less than an increased majority for Brown will be seen as a setback, weakening his standing in Parliament and in the nation. And an increased majority will be very hard for him to achieve.

In effect, therefore, if Brown did not intend originally to call an election, letting the speculation run on for so long may prove to have been a grave miscalculation.

However, while the Tory press chooses to make a meal of Brown's announcement yesterday of troop reductions in Iraq – overblown in our view – there are, electorally, much more significant influences at play, which could have a major impact on the outcome of any election.

If readers would care to cast their minds back to the 2005 election, they may recall our analyses (and here) that indicated that the then combined UKIP/Veritas vote could have cost the Tories as many as 25 seats.

Then, we observed that, "if current trends continue and the 'UKIP effect' means anything at all, UKIP could cost the Conservatives the next general election."

Now, however, the situation could be completely reversed. Despite the rather "sniffy" response from UKIP to Hague's initiative yesterday, if that is taken with Cameron's unequivocal commitment to a referendum should the Tories win an early election (whatever the ambiguities of a later position), the fact remains that the Conservatives are the last, best hope of defeating the EU constitutional reform treaty.

Thus, as Cranmer rightly observes, this situation does rather put UKIP on the spot.

Given an announcement of a general election, next week – if it comes – is UKIP going to take its usual stance of confronting the Tories in as many seats as possible – and thus risk sabotaging hopes of a referendum – or is it going to hold its nose and throw its weight behind them, in the interests of the greater good?

Then, there remains the sheer practicalities of UKIP fielding a significant number of candidates at short notice. The Party is known to be in disarray, with many of its local party organisations in tatters (after the defection of many of its experienced workers, including this writer), and it is certainly short of money. Its major backers – like Paul Sykes, who bankrolled the last election - have also deserted it and are not likely to support a party which is seen to be handicapping chances of a referendum.

Even if the UKIP hierarchy, for their own ego-driven reasons, do therefore decide to contest the election, their voters might think otherwise, and go for the Tories on this one (to them) central issue – the referendum. In so doing, they themselves may be following the advice UKIP has so often given Tory voters: put country before party.

And there, perhaps is Brown's most serious miscalculation. He, like us, will have seen the opinion poll results, and judged that "Europe" is not high in the list of voters' concerns. Accordingly, if he goes to the country, he may feel he can ignore calls for a referendum as electorally insignificant. But, the UKIP-turned-Tory vote (plus the return of a number of those who have deserted the Tories and simply stayed at home) could make a difference.

As so often, we find that a week is a long time in politics and this last week may turn out to be the longest of them all for Brown.


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