Gordon Brown's closest political ally urged him to announce a snap general election as speculation mounted at the Labour conference that he would call a 1 November poll.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, suggested that the "gamble" would not be to hold an immediate election but to wait until next year. "It's a very interesting question as to where the gamble really lies," he said.
His comments in a BBC Radio interview showed that he believes Mr Brown might never have a better prospect of winning a fourth term for Labour than he does now and that the party might not do so well if he delays the poll until next May.
Later, Mr Balls insisted the Government was "getting on with the job" but stoked the election speculation by adding: "They [the public] need to know the nature of the very real and clear choice facing the country in the coming years – a Labour Party and government led by Gordon Brown and a Conservative Government led by David Cameron."
However, Mr Brown is getting conflicting advice from his cabinet ministers. So-called "Young Turks" such as Mr Balls, the election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband, who is drafting the Labour manifesto, are keener on a snap poll than more long-serving members. The so-called "greybeards" urging caution are said to include the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, the Health Secretary Alan Johnson and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
Labour insiders pointed out that the Young Turks have a greater interest in securing as big an election victory as possible to boost their prospects of having a long cabinet career.
As the bookmakers William Hill made a 2007 election the favourite option for the first time, John Denham, the Skills Secretary, said the gains predicted by the opinion polls were "exciting" to see but suggested the crucial judgement would be whether Labour would win key marginal seats. He added: "One of the things that the polls would say is we could turn a majority of 60 with two-and-a-half years to run into a majority of 100 with five years to run."
Yesterday Mr Brown did nothing to cool the feverish debate about the poll date when he took questions from Labour delegates in Bournemouth. Pressed on the matter by the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, he quipped: "I think the first person I would have to talk to is the Queen." During the session, he promised that tax loopholes being exploited by private equity bosses would be closed by measures to be announced next month.
He told the conference that the pre-Budget report to be unveiled by Mr Darling would include action on the issue of private equity firms. The move follows criticism by Labour activists, MPs and trade unions that bosses enjoying non-domicile status pay only 10 per cent tax. "Whenever there is a loophole that shouldn't exist we take action. Since 1997 we have closed a massive number," he said. "Sometimes it is very difficult because you have lawyers and accountants always trying to find these loopholes. But on this issue of private equity I can assure you that we will do so."
Jack Dromey, the Labour treasurer, told the conference the party was "starting to gear up" for an election. Labour was "no longer racking up debts" but "living within our means", he said in his report.
A survey of 296 Labour members by the independent LabourHome.org blog site showed that grassroots activists are ready for an early election but believe Mr Brown is more likely to call one next May while 62 per cent want an autumn poll.Reuse content