Alan Watkins: Never glad confident morning again!

Left behind by the Tories on inheritance tax, the Prime Minister has only himself to blame for his decline in the polls
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It was the poet Robert Browning who wrote, in "The Lost Leader", the line "Never glad confident morning again!". It was quoted by a former Tory minister in the Profumo debate of 1963. It referred to the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. He had been in office for six years before finally taking his leave some three months later.

Mr Gordon Brown has been at No 10 for roughly the same concluding period, three months rather than six years. His followers, or former followers, might have been tempted to echo Browning's sentiment. How has it all come about so suddenly and so surprisingly? He was like a tethered bear. "The great use of delineating absurdities," Samuel Johnson tells us, "is that we may know how far human folly can go: the account therefore ought, of absolute necessity, to be faithful."

It was not Mr Brown's fault that the polls moved decisively in his favour during the summer. Mind you, it was not to his credit either. The Government did very little, for example, to mitigate the damage brought about by the floods. What aggrieved citizens were telling the television reporters seemed to be at variance with what the reporters were telling the audience. While the victims of the flooding were complaining that they had been forgotten and that nothing was being done on their behalf, television newsreaders were celebrating the spirit of the Blitz.

Unaccountably, Mr Brown won golden opinions, as he did for his performance over terrorism and even over foot and mouth. He was, after all, a new face, even if he had been around for a long time. In particular, he was not Mr Tony Blair. He and his wife did not go about gallivanting in palaces or on yachts. Above all, he was on television on most evenings, whereas Mr David Cameron was not, or not much. Mr Cameron's followers became increasingly glum. Their supporters in the papers wrote that the next election – it was predicted for May 2008 – was as good as lost. Mr Cameron would probably not survive. It would be somebody else.

At the same time, the followers of Mr Brown were growing in confidence, even in bumptiousness. For the beginning of May there was substituted the end of October, or even the beginning of November. There are rows and alliances of Downing Street sycophants and Guardian harpies. "Go for it, Gordon!": that was the cry of the moment. The moment in question occurred during the Labour conference at Bournemouth and immediately before the Conservative gathering at Blackpool. I had been urging caution on Mr Brown for several weeks. For one thing, I did not believe the polls, which reflected temporary popularity rather than underlying reality. For another, all recent political precedent was against calling an early election when the Prime Minister already had an adequate majority. The one exception, Anthony Eden's election in May 1955, was more apparent than real, because that Parliament was already in its fourth year.

Mr Brown told us last week that he had never intended to have an election and that when the polls had swung against him, in the week of the Conservative conference, they had not affected his decision. He could have put a stop to the fever before the Labour conference, or during it, or immediately after it had finished. Instead, he preferred to play games with the Conservative Party and so, accordingly, with the voters. As St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians puts it (6:7): "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

Mr George Osborne had spoken early at the conference. The assumption in Government circles then was that there was going to be an early election. Mr Osborne proceeded to spring a surprise with his announcement that the limit for death duties would be increased to £1m.

There was then a nifty piece of Labour hackery on the part of Mr Brown's friends in the press to the effect that death duties were unimportant, that nobody paid them and that Mr Osborne's proposals would "unravel" – that was the favoured word of the week – in the course of a gruelling election campaign. There was nothing from Mr Alistair Darling at this stage of the proceedings about any measures of his own. The polls shifted in the Conservatives' favour after Mr Osborne's proposals.

Mr Brown may have had his doubts about the election throughout the week or, indeed, for the entire period. But what is clear is that it was as late as a week last Friday before Mr Brown made up his mind, communicating his decision to some political editors (including the well-informed political editor of this paper) and to the BBC, though not to ITV or Sky News.

Indeed, I watched Sky at one o'clock on Saturday eight days ago, when the bulletin was informing the viewers that prime ministerial discussions were going on throughout the weekend and that a decision would be announced on the Tuesday. Mr Brown recorded an interview with Mr Andrew Marr on the Saturday afternoon for broadcasting on the Sunday morning: so the BBC had inevitably to be informed. Even so, keeping the other broadcasting bodies in ignorance smacked of favouritism by No 10.

There is one remaining mystery. It was not about Mr Brown's statement on Iraq. He was entirely correct to give a report, for what it was worth. But what was the purpose of advancing Mr Darling's autumn statement if there was to be no election? More specifically, what was the point of alleviating death duties at this stage? Why the rush? It was like the railway timetables at the outbreak of the First World War, except that fortunately no war took place. As Mr Darling was outlining his proposals, the poor boobies on the Labour backbenches were making vaguely triumphalist noises as if the Tories had been caught out.

But Mr Darling's final figure of £700,000 is smaller than Mr Osborne's figure. The setting aside of any additional figure to worthy causes is usually so much eyewash. Moreover, Mr Darling's lower figure is more restricted in its beneficiaries.

Surviving spouses are already untaxed on houses until they die, if they continue to live in the couple's home. Under Labour's proposals, the widow or widower gets the additional allowance, so doubling it, though not if the couple are divorced. It does not seem very fair to the children of a divorce. Nor is it fair to siblings living together, for one or more of them may still have to sell the house to pay the tax. Mr Brown has made an opportunistic mess of things.

All together, Mr Brown's discomfiture reminds me of the occasion when the late Frank Johnson and I met William Whitelaw on the prom in Brighton. Whitelaw had just emerged from a session at the Tory conference when Edward Heath had urged the audience not to gloat about some misfortune or other during the Labour Government of the late 1970s. "Ted says we mustn't gloat," Whitelaw bellowed. "Wrong to gloat, mustn't do it, no, no, no. Well, I can tell you, I'm gloating like hell."