Saturday, December 05, 2009

Was the 'election-that-never-was' actually the political judgement call of the century?

Sorry Jack, but you were right all along. Gordon Brown made the right call not to hold an election in autumn 2007 - and if all the recent chatter about hung Parliaments proves to be correct, he will ultimately be vindicated in it. Here's today's Journal column.

Amidst all the many and varied factors that have contributed to the unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s government over the past couple of years, one stands out above all others.

It came, of course, in October 2007, a little over three months into his premiership, when Mr Brown decided not to call the snap general election for which some of his closest allies had been actively preparing.

From being 11 points ahead in the opinion polls during his party’s conference a fortnight earlier, Labour suddenly found itself up to 20 points behind, a reversal in fortune from which the government has never quite recovered.

As such, it seems likely to be remembered as the decisive moment when Mr Brown lost it - lost the respect of the British public, lost the political initiative to the Tories, and lost any chance of securing his own personal mandate.

At the time, I was one of those who argued that holding an opportunist election when there was no need to do so risked destroying Mr Brown's hitherto highly-prized reputation as a serious statesman.

I was by no means alone in this. Another who urged restraint was the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, one of only three men to have served continually in the Labour Cabinet since 1997.

Yet with the benefit of hindsight Mr Straw has now changed his mind, saying this week that he was wrong and that the Prime Minister should have called that autumn '07 contest.

For my part, I am still not convinced. The public do not like unnecessary elections – especially in November – and I still reckon the best Mr Brown would have ended up with was a hung Parliament.

There has been little talk of hung Parliaments since then, but it has suddenly revived over the past week, thanks largely to a - possibly rogue - opinion poll showing the Tory lead down to just six percentage points.

As regular readers of this column will know by now, our skewed electoral system means the Tories have to be 10-11 points ahead of Labour to be sure of securing an outright Commons majority.

And lo and behold, alongside talk of a hung Parliament comes fresh talk about proportional representation, with Labour confirming it will pass legislation before the election to enable a referendum on the voting system to be held after it.

It’s a smart tactical move by Mr Brown, as it means an incoming David Cameron government will have to repeal the legislation to stop the referendum taking place – unlikely if the Tories end up dependent on Lib Dem support.

That Mr Cameron is facing the distinct possibility on having to rely on Nick Clegg to put him in No 10 is seen by many as proof that he and his party have yet to "seal the deal" with the electorate.

If he is to become Prime Minister, it seems to likely to be more a result of Labour's ineptitude and lack of fresh vision than out of any great public enthusiasm for the Conservatives.

But what is also interesting about the recent chatter is that it puts a slightly new perspective on Mr Brown's October 2007 decision not to go to the country.

Had he done so, and gone from a majority of 66 to a hung Parliament, it would have gone down in history as a terrible misjudgement.

But were he to secure one in 2010, in the teeth of the worst recession for seventy years and up against a moderate, likeable Tory opponent, it would not look anything like that.

Is it just possible that ‘bottler Brown's' great election choke could yet come to be seen as the political judgement call of the century?

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Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone was nearly so bothered about Brown's decision not to hold the election - which was a reasonable one in the circumstances - as much as the fact that he lied about the reason for calling it off. Claiming it was to "set out his vision" when it was blatantly a tactical retreat in the face of worsened opinion polls was a terrible mistake - not only a lie but a lie that everyone instantly saw through. That, as much as anything, is what damaged his reputation as a serious statesman, because he looked a complete idiot.

James Higham said...

Yes but Paul, he wasn't too know then that Cameron was going to implode like this and lose half his support. Or did he know? Dot dot dot.