Ministers and Labour MPs criticise PM for 'bottling it' over snap general election

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown was fighting yesterday to retain his authority amid a Labour backlash over the way he handled his decision not to call a 1 November general election.

Labour MPs and even some ministers criticised Mr Brown for allowing speculation that he might call an autumn poll to spiral out of control, allowing a rejuvenated Conservative Party to accuse him of "bottling it" when he pulled back.

Although close allies insisted the Prime Minister had never been persuaded by aides who favoured a snap election, contingency plans had been drawn up for him to announce one on television tomorrow after asking the Queen to dissolve Parliament. After studying Labour polling in marginal seats, Mr Brown finally decided on Saturday to rule out an election.

He announced his decision in an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr, which was recorded on Saturday and broadcast yesterday. He revealed that an election next year was "very unlikely", effectively killing off a possible "Plan B" by seeking a new mandate next May.

Mr Brown said the series of crises since he became Prime Minister in June meant "the easiest thing" he could do was to call an election "on competence". Denying he had been scared off by the opinion polls, he insisted: "I have a vision for change in Britain and I want to show people how in government we're implementing it."

Mr Brown and his cabinet allies came under fire from some Labour MPs over the handling of the election that never was. They accused Labour's election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, and the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, for overplaying speculation about a snap poll and handing a propaganda coup to Mr Cameron. Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, conceded on BBC Radio 4 that the episode could have harmed Mr Brown. Asked whether the episode had damaged him she said: "Well, you know, we'll see."

Privately, ministers admit Mr Brown will "take a hit" but hope it will be short-lived. "Cameron was on the ropes, but we have allowed him back into the contest and to start landing punches," one minister admitted yesterday.

A cabinet minister added: "The puzzling thing is why he [Mr Brown] allowed the speculation to build up so strongly if he wasn't going to do it. I was convinced he would call an election."

As Labour launches a damage-limitation exercise, Mr Brown will defend his advisers today at a lunchtime press conference.

But Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "There is a lesson to be learned by him so he does not allow these people to spin uncontrollably. This is a decision the Prime Minister takes. This started as a jolly jape to wind up the Tories and it got totally out of control. He added: "If you have people in senior positions who have done nothing in their lives and who are there by virtue of patronage and not because of what they have done you will get this kind of problem. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk."

David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, said the affair had been "damaging", adding: "Some of the younger senior people must bear a good deal of responsibility for uniting the Tories."

Mr Cameron accused Mr Brown of "treating the British people as fools" and "not being straight", saying "Everybody knows he is not having an election because there's a danger of him losing it." He said the Tories would consider backing a switch to fixed, four-year Parliaments to take away the Prime Minister's ability to decide the timing of an election, but suggested he was not yet persuaded.

Liberal Democrats will today table a Bill to remove the power of the Prime Minister to determine the timing of elections by bringing in fixed four-year parliaments. Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's leader, said the "charade" of recent weeks had been conducted entirely in the interests of the Labour Party and accused Mr Brown of reverting to "the worst of Blairism ... It is deeply, deeply damaging [to him] and more than that it is deeply, deeply damaging to politics."

What they said about an early election

* Ed Balls, Schools Secretary and Prime Minister's closest adviser

Led calls for an early election, warning publicly during the Labour Party conference that it may be a gamble to delay. Said to have cooled about the idea last week.

* Douglas Alexander, International Development Secretary and general election co-ordinator

Another advocate of an early poll, believing that it would "close the deal" on David Cameron. However, sources said his enthusiasm was dented last week by warnings that up to two million voters could be lost from the electoral roll.

* Spencer Livermore, Director of political strategy at Number 10 and a trusted aide to Mr Brown

Has been enthusiastic about the idea of going to the electorate.

* Ed Miliband, Cabinet Office Minister and close Brown adviser

Sceptical about an autumn poll. Considered carefully the pros and cons of an early election.

* Jack Straw, Justice Secretary

Seasoned campaigner who was always cautious about the idea of rushing to the polls. Tried to cool speculation at the Labour Conference.

* Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Another voice of caution. Has brought forward his three-year spending review and the pre-budget report to tomorrow, but removed it from the election build-up.

* Geoff Hoon, Chief Whip

Argued for a delay. Whips surveyed their MPs last week to gauge the level of readiness for a general election. Backbenchers, especially in marginal seats, were privately reticent, warning that their local parties had not done vital campaigning to build up to a poll.