Among more sentient Tories it has been possible to detect, over the last week or so, an instructive shift of attitude towards the one question obsessing the British political classes above all others, the date of the general election. It stems from a growing belief that that 3 May poll may yet provide the best opportunity the Opposition will have of making significant inroads into the Labour vote.
In one sense, this is a belated recognition of the logical flaw inherent in the Tories' own arguments, however subtly modulated, in favour of postponement. If a 3 May general election is such an affront to the British people, then why not let the British people pronounce its verdict on the Prime Minister who is forcing it on them? But this change of attitude also reflects a real, if still highly tentative, change of heart. After the early outbreaks of foot-and-mouth, most senior Tories felt inhibited by the fear of being seen to run away from an election from calling for delay. Having overcome their scruples on that point, some now discover, paradoxically, that they and their cheerleaders in the Conservative press are urging a postponement which may not, after all, be in their own interests.
The Tories who think this, of course, may be quite wrong. In particular, real economic uncertainties, underlined by the stark analysis reported elsewhere by Andrew Grice, could yet change the electoral terms of trade. Equally, however, they could be right. The Tories capacity to generate bad news as time goes on exemplified by the MP John Townend's indefensibly Powellite views on race appears undiminished.
It's not clear, even in the far from certain event of economic turbulence, that the electorate will yet be ready to prefer Michael Portillo to a tried-and-tested Chancellor with an unrivalled reputation. In such circumstances, the chances of fighting an election against a televised background of burning livestock, in which a minority rural issue can be made, however unjustifiably, central for at least part of the campaign, suddenly becomes attractive.
Which raises the question of why more Labour MPs don't see things the same way. It's customary to separate national from party interest. But this shouldn't be overdone. Ridiculed as it has been, there is still a democratic case against a 3 May election, as the former Cabinet minister Tom King pointed out yesterday when he said that an early campaign would deprive much of rural Britain of its MPs just when they were most needed.
But any self-respecting politician also believes that his own party's victory is in the national interest. And it is possible to detect a growing concern, at least among the 180 or so rural and semi-rural Labour MPs, that these interests may not be best served by a 3 May election. The group met on Tuesday. While there was no unanimity, two marked strands were detectable.
One view was that an immediate election might fuel cynicism even among Labour heartland voters. And the other was that foot-and-mouth threatens to crowd out issues on which Labour is confident it would have an advantage over the Tories in normal times.
This is far from conclusive. Many MPs, fortified by internal polling showing a 16-point Labour lead, and a 2-point drop in William Hague's ratings, still believe firmly in 3 May. And there are some good reasons for ignoring the vested interests arguing for postponement.
British sentimentality about dying animals is all very well. Exploitation of it, however, comes ill from an industry which is very substantially in the business of killing animals, on behalf of whose livelihoods the current slaughter policy is exclusively being enacted, which is protected from precisely those market forces that have just seen the jobs of 6,000 highly productive steel workers destroyed, and which has gobbled up billions of the taxpayers' money on a scale no other industry would dream of in its wildest fantasies. It would be surprising, not to say irresponsible, if this last consideration did not weigh especially heavily on Gordon Brown.
The worries about government paralysis, particularly in the event of a protracted postponement, are real. The future of the Post Office, the big questions about long-term higher education funding, and a further step change in improving secondary education, not to mention the shaping of European policy, are big examples, but only examples, of decisions that will remain in limbo until an election can be called.
And yet these aren't conclusive, particularly if the election is postponed only to 7 June. For a start, powerful as the arguments against farmers are, no politician in any party looks brave enough to deploy them in a foot-and-mouth election.
As well as the good reasons, moreover, there are also some bad ones. One consideration weighing in the minds of the party's high command is the reaction of The Sun, which has wholly committed itself to the view that Mr Blair not only should but will go to the country on 3 May and which could therefore be embarrassed by a 7 June election. Perhaps it isn't very high up the league table of variables. But if it were one at all, this would be a truly grotesque distortion of the powers of the elected over the unelected. No doubt, too, it can be fixed. Perhaps it's cynical to say so, but if Tony Blair does finally decide not to call an election on 3 May, it wouldn't be wholly surprising if the news surfaced first on page one of Britain's biggest selling (and Labour-supporting) newspaper.
Clearly, 7 June is the preferable alternative general-election date, if there is to be one. Whether Mr Blair would name it next week, and so precipitate a two-month election campaign, seems much more doubtful. Assuming that he isn't seduced by the arguments of some MPs for a local election date a year hence, a likelier course might be to announce 7 June local elections and say that the general election wouldn't take place before then.
Of course he could still opt for 3 May. The latest polling figures will no doubt carry weight. But in the end, the desperately complex fluidities of the decision-making process will come down to one essentially practical question.
Having, commendably, put himself in personal charge of running the Government's response to the crisis, the Prime Minister now has to decide whether he can also run an election campaign from next week in which he remains the most potent asset, and therefore the one most in demand. Under present circumstances, the answer is probably no. For him to move on to immediate election footing would presuppose that the crisis has been already brought under control, for in any other circumstances his taking charge would be seen, damagingly, to have been a matter of form rather than substance.
Not yet a majority, no doubt, but a growing number of Labour MPs, while justly confident that this achievement is wholly within his grasp, are, I calculate, doubtful whether it can be accomplished before he has to call a 3 May election. But unless it can be, then the Prime Minister should, and perhaps even now will, opt for delay.Reuse content