The expectations’ see-sore

by Stephen Tall on October 3, 2007

It all changes so, so quickly.

Five months ago, David Cameron was riding high, following some pretty decent local election results. Tony Blair, New Labour’s election talisman was soon to depart, and be replaced by the ever-grumpy, and supposedly vote-haemmorhaging, Gordon Brown.

And then Mr Brown took over, and confounded the Tories’ worst hopes.

Though most people would be hard-pressed to name anything significant that he’s achieved as Prime Minister – I’m afraid I don’t count being on watch during crises over which you have little or no control (foot-and-mouth), or for which you are partly responsible for (Northern Rock) – he has successfully managed not to be Mr Blair. And, frankly, that’s all the country wanted, just as Margaret Thatcher’s replacement with John Major lifted the Tories almost 17 years ago.

The media has, as is their wont, over-interpreted this mood of relief, and ascribed to it more significance than it deserves. The ‘Brown bounce’ is likely prove to be just that: a temporary and limited surge in Labour’s popularity which owes much to the Prime Minister’s current novelty value.

However, the media’s exuberance appears also to have gripped New New Labour’s high command, which has refused to kill off speculation that a snap election will be announced in a matter of days. As a result, serious politics has taken a back-seat while the parties take pot-shots at each other during this phoney war.

Perhaps Mr Brown was hoping the Tory party conference in Blackpool this week, should it prove a disaster, would help make up his mind. If so, he’ll have been sadly disappointed – whatever you think of the Tories, it’s clear they’ve had a good enough week.

By which I mean, they haven’t fallen into their usual traps of publicly displaying either chronic disloyalty to their leader, or self-indulgent rants from barking mad regiments of retired colonel-types taking their prejudices for a walk. Even if they did make the mistake of letting Liam Fox remind everyone exactly why all Lib Dem and Labour supporters would just love him to become Tory leader.

The Tories have, therefore, successfully achieved just what Mr Brown did in the summer: they have countered the low expectations set for them by the media, such as the risible headline The Observer splashed on its front page, Cameron faces poll meltdown. (If editors of the supposedly more serious newspapers are ever kept awake by their falling circulations, and wonder why the public chooses to shun their product, they would do well to ponder the dumbed-down, hyped-up sensationalism of their front pages.)

All of which leaves Mr Brown in a quandary: damned if he does call an election, and damned if he doesn’t.

Because, make no mistake, to go to the polls now is a huge gamble. How will the public react to being forced to endure a month’s politicking followed by a trip to the polling station in cold, damp, miserable weather?

Some polls suggest the electorate is up for it, ready, willing and able to bound down to their nearest polling station, and mark their cross. Well, perhaps. But Mr Brown should know better than to trust polls which ask hypothetical questions: after all, if they were at all a useful predictor, he wouldn’t now be enjoying his currently high popularity ratings.

I won’t be foolish enough to predict the result of a November election, if one happens – but I will predict that turnout would be down, which in itself would scarcely amount to a ringing endorsement of Mr Brown’s mandate to govern.

Even if he wins, he must win big enough – at least a majority of 40, or his credibility will take a real bashing (and he will find himself at the mercy of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs). It will only take the smallest of swings away from Labour to see Mr Brown’s majority vanish, and with it his authority and grip on his premiership.

And as for the ignominious prospect of defeat, joining the ranks of the shortest-serving Prime Ministers of this country… well, that thought is the one which is doubtless paralysing Mr Brown even now. To squander a majority of 69 for the sake of the personal hubristic vanity of winning an election in your own right – suddenly all the warnings which the Blairites had whispered in the years leading up to Mr Brown’s accession would seem eerily prophetic.

Which is why Mr Brown might still decide to flunk it, to decide against calling an election, and ride his luck at least until the spring. The whispers I’m hearing from Team Brown is that they have yet finally to make up their mind. The current favoured option is 8th November, announced next week. But who knows?

There would be lots of good reasons for Mr Brown to postpone. Yet it would be seen as a climb-down, an humiliating admission, rooted in careful calculation, that he can’t win at the moment. In an instant, political momentum would swing away from Mr Brown, and towards his opponents.

At which point, the media and the public might just begin to think: for a country-before-party, ‘big tent’-loving statesman, Mr Brown doesn’t half seem to devote an unseemly amount of time to promoting his own personal political interests.