Brown prepares Labour troops for snap election

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Labour stepped up its preparations for a snap general election after the party's annual conference in Bournemouth ended on a high note yesterday.

In a significant move, staff who work for Labour in the regions were ordered to leave the conference on Tuesday or Wednesday and return to their offices to speed up their election planning. "The strong expectation is that we are going to have an autumn election," said one official.

Gordon Brown will decide within days whether or not to fire the starting gun. If he goes ahead, the most likely election date is 1 November. This weekend, Mr Brown will consult advisers and study polling from key marginal seats that could play a critical part in his decision.

There is growing evidence that Labour is gearing up for an autumn election. Insiders say the party has already committed £3m of election spending. It is advertising for 25 new officials, some of whom might be able to join immediately as they could be recruited from trades unions, charities and pressure groups. Significantly, only five of the posts are permanent and 20 are for a "fixed term"– a device used to take on staff for the election period.

The party is also recruiting supporters working in public relations and lobbying who will join its election campaign team, normally by taking unpaid leave from their jobs. Some have been asked if they could start working for the party as early as Monday.

Senior Labour sources insisted the preparations did not mean the Prime Minister had decided on an immediate election. They said all the moves were consistent with an election next May – the most likely option if he decides not to go to the country soon.

Mr Brown's allies say he wants to consider his options in the cold light of day away from the "bubble" of the conference. Some are worried that the Tories will accuse him of being "scared" of an election if he decides against one.

However, ministers said the possible autumn election was now "gaining a momentum of its own" and would be difficult to stop.

Ministers left the conference in Bournemouth increasingly convinced that an election was imminent. One said: "Forty-eight hours ago I didn't believe it. Now I am convinced it is very much on the cards."

Barbara Follett, the minister for Women, told a conference fringe meeting: "When I came here, I thought there would be a 40 per cent chance – I now think there's an 80 per cent chance. It's about having a mandate, having a fresh start, whether its 25 October, 1 November or 8 November," she said.

In her closing speech, Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, said: "We will be organised. We will be mobilised. We will be determined. We are confident of our record and vision for the future, so proud of our leader."

She hailed the conference as a "watershed," saying the party was "more confident, more united and more determined than ever before". She claimed that the Tories were still "the nasty party" and that their leader David Cameron was too weak to change them.

Ms Harman said there would be a "clear choice" at the next election about who would lead the country. "I think people want a Prime Minister who listens and gets on with the job so they and their family can get on with their lives. So why would anyone want David Cameron?"

But Ed Blissett, of the GMB union, sounded a rare note of dissent by criticising Mr Brown's "big tent" strategy of wooing supporters of other parties. In a dig at recent appointments of senior Tories, Mr Blissett urged Labour ministers to "listen a little more to your true friends in the Labour movement and a little less to the Tory press, the CBI and the employers, and, in particular, listen a little less to Conservatives of all kinds."