Gordon Brown was last night engaged in a fight for his credibility after he dramatically ruled out an autumn general election, ending weeks of speculation that he would launch a three- week campaign on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister was embroiled in a political crisis of his own making after he was forced into what was widely seen as an astonishing own goal in allowing speculation of an early poll to build up near-unstoppable momentum.
Although Labour was still gearing up for an election on 1 November just 24 hours earlier, Mr Brown insisted in a BBC interview to be broadcast today that he wanted to show voters his "vision for the future of this country " rather than simply his "competence" at dealing with crises such as flooding, terrorist attacks and foot and mouth disease outbreaks.
In an extraordinary climax to weeks of political drama, Mr Brown decided to pull the plug on election plans after consulting close aides who expressed concern that Tory support was holding up in key marginal seats, while many voters would be disenfranchised because the electoral roll is out of date. Yesterday the Prime Minister gave a strong indication there will be no election before 2009, saying: "I think it's very unlikely that this will happen in the next period."
Gleeful Tories, who only seven days ago were fearing an early poll despite insisting publicly they would welcome it, were quick to ridicule Mr Brown, accusing him of "weakness and indecision".
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, last night said the speculation of the past few weeks had been "all about Mr Brown trying to spin his way to a general election". He added: "They have now had to make a humiliating retreat. We have had drift, indecision and dithering from the Prime Minister. We will be ready when the Prime Minister has the courage to challenge us."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "How could it be that Gordon Brown, who has been preparing for 10 years to be Prime Minister, could be forced into the circumstances of a humiliating climbdown?"
A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: "He has bottled it. It's a fiasco."
Mr Brown's volte face came after new polling evidence in marginal constituencies showed strong support for the Tories' tax-cutting proposals, including their plan to raise the threshold for inheritance tax from £300,000 to £1m.
An ICM poll for the News of the World in 83 marginal seats today shows a six-point Tory lead over Labour, an astonishing turnaround from polls which had Mr Brown enjoying an 11-point overall lead before the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. A Sunday Times poll also puts the Conservatives ahead, with a three-point lead nationwide.
"It became clear that the inheritance tax had had a big impact in the marginals," said one Downing Street source.
Most MPs will be privately relieved that they will not have to fight a snap election. Senior Labour figures believe an early poll was unnecessary, with focus groups showing most voters agree.
Sources close to Mr Brown said that Labour was confident of winning a poll but wanted to fight at a time when they believed they could dismantle the Tory economic programme.
In today's BBC interview, Mr Brown will explain why he is not calling an election: "I want to show people the vision for the future of this country in housing, health and education and I want the chance... to develop and show people the policies that are going to make a huge difference and show the change in the country itself."
Asked by Andrew Marr if he could "recover from this", Mr Brown replied: "The polls go up and down. I have no doubt we would win an election. I would relish the chance to... show how the Conservative policies would bring economic disarray to this country."
This week Labour will begin a long-term assault on the Tories' new tax proposals by proposing to use Treasury funds to help first-time buyers get on to the property ladder.
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