Election delayed due to inclement political weather

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Everybody that I watched or listened to immediately after Thursday's electionfest proceeded on the assumption that Mr Tony Blair's plans for an election in late spring or early summer next year remained unchanged by those stirring events. Thus we were told that, before the election, whose date was apparently carved on a tablet of stone adorning Mr Alastair Campbell's mantelpiece, Mr Blair must do this, not do that, appeal more convincingly to one group, cease antagonising another.

All this may be true enough. The Government clearly has a lot of work to do. This column has long maintained that New Labour, as the Prime Minister prefers to call the party he leads, is by no means certain to win the election. They laughed when I sat down at this particular piano. Of course, people said, Mr Blair was sure to win, possibly by an increased majority. Oddly enough - or perhaps not oddly at all - those who held this view most strongly were themselves Conservatives who had been spurned or discarded by Mr William Hague or who disapproved of him as a leader for more disinterested reasons.

Today that orthodoxy has been toppled which has been with us for three years and from which I have always dissented. It is a change in the political weather that will be with us until the election, even though Mr Hague and Mr Blair will, between now and then, suffer storms and enjoy sunny periods.

But Mr Blair has one advantage which no one can take away from him. It is he and not Mr Hague who decides when that election is to take place. Its date is not engraved on any tablet on Mr Campbell's mantelpiece but, rather, can be written down and rubbed out in soft pencil in the new-year section at the back of Mr Blair's pocket diary.

It is the most important domestic decision which any prime minister has to take. It is surprising how many of them get it wrong: C R Attlee in 1951, Harold Wilson in 1970, Edward Heath in February 1974, Wilson again in October 1974 (when he erroneously supposed he would receive an endorsement comparable to that of 1966), James Callaghan in 1979. The prime minister whose situation was nearest to Mr Blair's was Wilson in 1966-70, when he had a majority of 96.

Some constitutional textbooks still assert that the prime minister alone fixes the date of the general election. As the late Sir Ivor Jennings put it in 1959:

"Another matter which is now never discussed in cabinet is the exercise of the prerogative of dissolving Parliament.... No dissolution since 1918 has been brought before the cabinet."

This is simply wrong. It was wrong even when Jennings wrote it. In the 1918-59 period there had been numerous examples of discussion by the cabinet of election dates. It was certainly wrong in 1970. As R H S Crossman wrote in his diary for 14 May 1970:

"Harold [Wilson] said 'We needn't, of course, decide anything yet' and then he made a 20-minute speech. The most interesting point was that he had got Roy's certificate that it would just as safe to have the election in October as in June. Nevertheless Roy [Jenkins] had decided that in the circumstances June was right."

The parallels between then and now are striking. Wilson had coined the phrase "The natural party of government" in the late 1960s or, rather, he had transferred it from the Tories, to whom it had often been applied, to his own party. The Opposition was led by a politician, Edward Heath, who was generally thought to lack any popular appeal and to be incapable of winning an election. The government had a chancellor of the exchequer of outstanding prudence and competence in Roy Jenkins. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher told me in 1981 that he was the best chancellor since the war from either party. It was also assumed that the election would have to take place at some time in 1970. The government could not go the full term on account of decimalisation in February 1971. Ministers believed it would rebound on them because it would inevitably lead to a rise in prices. As far as I can make out, there is no comparable factor of such objectivity behind the assumption - or the assumption before Thursday's events began to sink in - that the election must come next year rather than in 2002. Indeed, in law it need not be held until the very end of May in that year.

Nor were the Liberals so important to Wilson's calculations as the Liberal Democrats are - or should be - to Mr Blair's today. In 1970 they had six MPs from 7.5 per cent of the vote. The third party or, as in the early 1980s, the third and fourth parties have always made gains when it is a Conservative government that is in power. The famous by-elections and the improved share of the vote at general elections have recently occurred in protest against a Tory administration. Until Romsey there had been no by-election since 1964 where the third party won a seat from the Conservatives under a Labour government.

Whether the Liberal Democrats lose Romsey at the general election is really beside the point. What the by-election shows is that they are still regarded as a party for whom reasonable people can sensibly vote. The election may yet see that balance of power about which we were all so exercised in the early days of Lady Thatcher and of the newly established SDP. Mr Charles Kennedy, who - unjustly - has not received the most glowing of presses lately, can afford to cheer up.

Mr Blair manifestly has a lot of thinking to do if he wants that second term about which everyone goes on so. He cannot now assume a comfortable majority in May. I would not expect him to consult the Cabinet as Wilson consulted the inner cabinet in 1970 or Callaghan did the full cabinet about the election that was never to take place in 1977-78. He will probably bring in the usual suspects - Mr Campbell, Ms Anji Hunter, Mr Jonathan Powell, above all, Mr Gordon Brown - as Wilson did with his gang in 1966, or Lady Thatcher with hers in 1983 and 1987. He will then ask the Cabinet a question expecting the answer Yes.

One unfortunate result of Mr Ken Livingstone's win in London is that electoral reform will probably become even more unpopular in the party than it is already. For Mr Livingstone won under what was effectively the alternative vote, with only a second choice allowed. Under the pure version of this system, third and fourth choices, and so on, can also be made. But when the votes come to be allocated, it is rare to have to proceed beyond second preferences for the clear winner to be established.

Mr Livingstone would also have won straightaway under the simple-majority system which we retain for our parliamentary elections. That will not diminish the convictions of the opponents of reform. My prediction is that after the election is held, whenever that turns out to be, Mr Blair and his colleagues will say to themselves: if only we had introduced the alternative vote or something very much like it when we had a majority of 180, how different would our lives be today!