The three Tory frontbenchers I met up with this week all asked me the same question: "Will there be a 2009 election?" One very senior figure took all of 20 seconds to get round to it.
It is the Tories, not Labour, who are talking up an early general election. David Cameron has challenged Gordon Brown to call one, so the voters can choose between two parties who are offering a very different economic path for the country. Yet a good rule of politics is: those who call for an election normally don't want one.
The trick worked well for Mr Cameron in the autumn of last year, when the Prime Minister bottled it. The Tories admit now they didn't want one then, and weren't ready. Today, they say their election plans are well advanced, with candidates in place, money rolling in and a manifesto being written.
The Tory leader challenges Mr Brown to bring it on, even though he would much rather he put it off until 2010. The Tories can't admit it, but they will have a much better chance of persuading people it is "time for change" after rather than during the recession.
Yesterday Mr Brown told his monthly press conference: "I am giving no thought to an election at all." He could hardly say the opposite, could he? Yet aides assure me that he is so immersed in the domestic and global economic crisis that he hasn't contemplated a 2009 poll. The assumption of a 2010 election (there must be one by June that year) is at the back of his mind. It rings true, since Mr Brown is still scarred by the great non-election fiasco of 2007, which sent his ratings into a nosedive.
While it might boost Mr Brown's prospects to hold an election in mid-recession, he knows that calling one might boomerang. It could look like an attempt to exploit the downturn to extend his mandate, a dangerous act when people feel little real affection for any party. As Neil Kinnock said during his battle with the Liverpool Militants in 1985: "You can't play politics with people's jobs."
So talk of a snap February 2009 poll is wide of the mark. March or April 2010 seems a better bet, since no prime minister likes to be boxed in until the bitter end. Of course, if Labour were ahead in the opinion polls next summer or autumn, Mr Brown might suddenly find time to think about one. It could be called at short notice, since Labour is so cash-strapped that it will have to run a slimline campaign. That would certainly appeal to a prime minister desperate to avoid another debilitating bout of election fever.
However, cabinet ministers do not expect the "Brown bounce" in the polls to last once the toll of job losses and company closures mounts in the new year. They expect the Tories to enjoy a bigger poll lead by next summer, killing off any prospect of a 2009 election. "We cannot go on defying the laws of political gravity forever;" one said. "2009 is going to be a very rocky road for us."
It won't be smooth for Mr Cameron either. The public like him when they see a lot of him, but he has stopped being "the story" in British politics since the banking crisis in October. He is having to shout much louder to be heard.
But some Tories worry that he is making misjudgments in his uphill struggle to compete with the natural power of any government during a crisis. They fret that their party is on the wrong side of the line, apparently opposing action to combat the recession and sending a subliminal message to the public that he wants the Government's measures to fail.
Normally, when one of the two main parties is up, the other is down. The economic crisis means they both end the year in a jittery state, and can't possibly know what 2009 will bring. Mr Brown, lucky to get a second chance, is in better shape than anyone imagined possible. But he knows the bounce will probably end soon. That is why he is unlikely to call an election in 2009.Reuse content