A general election next month looks increasingly unlikely after three opinion polls showed a dramatic drop in Labour's support at the close of the party conference season.
Gordon Brown came under pressure from Labour figures to scrap plans for an elecion on 1 November as the Conservatives closed the gap in the polls after David Cameron led a fightback at his party's Blackpool conference.
A YouGov survey for Channel 4 News, taken after Mr Cameron's conference speech, showed that Labour's 11-point lead a week ago has been cut to just four points. Labour is on 40 per cent (down three points), the Tories on 36 per cent (up three) and the Liberal Democrats on 13 per cent (no change).
A Populus survey for today's Times newspaper found that a 10-point Labour lead at the end of its Bournemouth conference has dropped to a three-point advantage. It put Labour on 39 per cent (down two points), the Tories on 36 per cent (up five) and the Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent (down two).
An ICM survey for The Guardian put the two main parties even closer, with Labour on 39 per cent, the Tories on 38 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats on 16 per cent.
Mr Brown is still keeping his options open, and will study the polls closely before making his final decision on the election this weekend. Some allies insist he could still go ahead. But senior Labour sources admitted the prospect of an autumn election was receding, as The Independent reported yesterday.
The message from the latest polls is that public opinion is so volatile that it would be too risky for Mr Brown to seek a new mandate now. He completed 100 days as Prime Minister yesterday.
If Mr Brown confirms over the next few days that he has no intention of calling an election this year, he will provoke Tory claims that he "bottled it" because he could not be confident of winning.
The Tories hope that, if they head off an autumn poll, they will end Mr Brown's honeymoon, make him look weak and a ditherer, and will throw the next election wide open.
The Brown inner circle, which is becoming more wary about an election, expected a bounce for the Tories after they unveiled plans to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m. Some allies are convinced that Labour can show that the Tories' plans do not add up, but are arguing that it would be better to put them under sustained attack over several months. If Labour wrecks the Tories' credibility on the economy, Mr Brown would probably call an election next May.
His aides believe the threat of a snap poll forced the Tories to rush out their tax plans, but are convinced that a short-term gain for Mr Cameron will become a long-term pain.
Labour figures claim Mr Brown was never committed to an election, even though he ordered the Labour and Whitehall machines to be ready so that he had the option of announcing a November election early next week. Labour will argue that there is no great public clamour for one now and no reason to claim one would be in the national interest.
Mr Cameron stepped up the game of cat-and-mouse yesterday by renewing his call for an immediate election. "I think it is in the country's interests to have one right now," he said. He demanded that the Opposition be allowed to hold talks with the civil service machine so that its policies could be implemented swiftly after a November poll, in line with tradition.
In a letter to Mr Brown, he said: "Given that you have allowed members of the Cabinet to speculate openly that an election is to be called imminently, I am asking you today to give the necessary instructions for such meetings to begin immediately."
Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for the marginal seat of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, urged the Prime Minister to kill the speculation about an autumn poll. "Let's take it on the chin and move on," he said.
Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, said: "I think you need an election as the sun's bursting out at the beginning of summer. To try to persuade people to come out at half past nine on a wet and windy dark November, I think it's dreadful."Reuse content