Alan Watkins: An early election? Mr Brown prefers to let it hang in the air

Like Northern Rock savers gathering in their money, Gordon Brown wants to hold on to what is his
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The Independent Online

Traditionally, the leader of the Labour Party addresses the conference (or "conference", without the definite article, as aficionados prefer to call it) towards the beginning of the proceedings. There is no reason for Mr Gordon Brown to break with precedent in this respect. But he can make one innovation. He can rule out a general election in October. He can go even further: echoing Lord Beaverbook's Daily Express before war broke out in 1939, he can say that there will be no election this year or next year either.

He may, of course, announce an election to take place in four or five weeks' time amid scenes reminiscent of the Sheffield rally in 1992. This might be an uncomfortable memory for Labour but would nevertheless mess up the Conservative conference. In the event, Mr Brown is likely to opt for neither course but, rather, to allow the subject to hang in the air.

An equally uncomfortable memory is of James Callaghan at the TUC conference in 1978. The circumstances that year were slightly different. Most observers had expected Jim to make his announcement there and then. Instead, he gave a rendition of the old music-hall song "There was I, Waiting at the Church". Typically, all the papers said that the original artiste was Marie Lloyd, whereas in fact it was Vesta Victoria. No matter. The leaders of the unions took offence; thought they were being turned into figures of fun.

Nearly 30 years on, a Labour Prime Minister would not care a jot whether the brothers from the branches took offence or not, Mr Brown being in this regard, as in many others, no different from Mr Tony Blair. In any case, the troubles of 1978-79 were not so much brought about by an attempt to sing an old song as by the then Labour government's determination to stick to a 5 per cent pay limit.

Another precedent for refusing to call an election comes from 1964. Sir Alec Douglas-Home had been in office since the previous October. The Cabinet was divided between having the election in spring-summer 1964 and hanging on till the autumn, the longest possible term. As most people expected the Conservatives to lose decisively but lost narrowly, Home was vindicated.

The immediate point is not that Mr Brown should continue in office till 2010, though it seems to be that, having struggled for as long as he has, he may as well stay in the job for as long as he can. The point is, rather, that there is a paralysis of the process of government. That was why Home acted as he did in 1964. All the talk about an election was getting in the way.

In the intervening period, matters have become more fevered. Hardly is an election over when the date of the next one is being most earnestly considered. We have been in this condition at least since 2005 and even before then.

For the past year, virtually the sole topic of political conversation has been the date of Mr Blair's departure. With Mr Blair finally gone, farewell tour over, not a dry eye in the house – well, just a few of them – and Mr Brown comfortably installed in the old Tory fashion, the only subject is the date of the next election. With so many other things to talk about, it does not make sense.

And yet, as Mr Mervyn King told a House of Commons committee in another connection, it makes perfect sense. Just as the people in the queues outside the Northern Rock offices were trying to get hold of their money, so Mr Brown is trying to hang on to and even to increase his vote. At the beginning of the week, the queues were still in place, folding chairs available, Thermos flasks charged and at the ready. In the standard phrase book of old Fleet Street, there were "housewives, some of them carrying shopping baskets". My colleagues pronounced confidently: there will be no October election.

During this short period, Mr Brown was silent. Indeed, throughout his spell as Chancellor, he had intervals of impenetrability, which came down like a Scottish mist. Once again, he could not be seen. He was the invisible man. In his place, he sent his friend Mr Alistair Darling. As Sherlock Holmes remarked in one of the stories: "I have the British Treasury behind me." It is a pity that a similarly generous guarantee could not have been extended to the policyholders of Equitable Life, to say nothing of many others who saw their pensions go down the plughole. But there it is.

Next day, the same colleagues went on to report with equal conviction: October poll back on course. Nothing whatever had really happened except that Mr Darling had made a statement, from which he is now backtracking, to the extent that no further bank guarantees can be issued, including new deposits in Northern Rock. The other thing that happened was a poll in The Guardian showing Mr Brown to be very popular, Sir Menzies Campbell more or less all right, and poor Mr David Cameron not liked at all. Most of my colleagues have followed the findings of the polls, and the good impression so far created by Mr Brown, in preference to the results of the most recent by-elections. Indeed, those results seemed to have been almost wilfully misinterpreted to the detriment both of the Liberal Democrats and, even more so, of the Conservatives.

The latest piece of favourable interpretation on behalf of the Government is that Mr Brown is "not to blame" for Northern Rock's degringolade. There is an analogy with the rise of unemployment in the early years of Margaret Thatcher's first administration. Central Office and assorted ministers gave out that the then government was not to blame for unemployment. It had been brought about by "world conditions". The voters believed the government and went on to give Mrs Thatcher a huge majority at the 1983 election.

It was at a Liberal Democrat conference 15 years ago that a government collapsed, except that it was a Conservative government. The process took the best part of five years to play out, beginning with a expulsion from the European Monetary System. At Harrogate that year, dinner engagements were hastily cancelled, sandwiches sent up to rooms, television sets kept permanently on. Next day, the entire political press decamped for London, leaving the Liberal Democrats to their own devices and their leader's speech.

On this occasion, Sir Menzies was more fortunate. He was listened to politely, attentively, at times enthusiastically. Even so, there was some talk of Young Turks. An old journalist once said to the late editor of the Daily Mirror: "What we need in this paper are a few Young Turks."

"I can see we could do with a few new faces about the place," the editor replied, "but why in [expletive's] name do they have to be Turkish?"

In Sir Ming's place, I would stop worrying, election or no election.

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