Andrew Grice: To call a general election or not? That is PM's dilemma

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The Independent Online

Should Gordon Brown call an election in October or November? There are very strong arguments for and against and Brown aides say the issue is "finely balanced".

Labour's lead in the opinion polls means that this moment may be Mr Brown's best opportunity to win a fourth term for Labour. Several key advisers have been won over by this "as it good as it gets" theory.

The Tories are widely seen as not ready for a snap election. So why should Mr Brown give David Cameron a chance to revive his party's fortunes and pump money into marginal seats before an election next May?

The Prime Minister wants to win a personal mandate as soon as possible and holding an election now would give him up to another five years in No 10.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Northern Rock crisis has not damaged Mr Brown's economic credentials and the polls suggest he is seen as the best man to handle economic problems.

Finally, the speculation about an election means that he will look as though he is running scared if he backs away from calling one in the next two weeks.

However, there are counter-arguments. Labour's poll lead could be overstated and might be eroded in a campaign. Mr Brown is worried that dark evenings could depress the turnout among Labour supporters, handing the Tories an advantage they would not enjoy next May.

Some tricky issues might be less problematic by next May. Some British troops may have been pulled out of Iraq and the new European Union treaty may have been approved by Parliament, diluting the campaign for a referendum on it.

There is no need for Mr Brown to risk losing the job he has coveted for so long after three months, and becoming the second shortest-serving prime minister in history after George Canning in the 19th century. Delaying an election would also give him time to spell out his long-term vision. After the Northern Rock affair, voters might think he was calling a "cut-and-run" election because of looming economic problems.

Above all, there is no need for an election until 2010. The last prime pinister to call an election with a healthy majority before the halfway point in the parliament was the Tory Stanley Baldwin in December 1923, who sought a new mandate after the resignation of Andrew Bonar Law. The result was a hung parliament and the first Labour government.

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