John Rentoul: How long can Gordon make the crisis last?

Stormy weather suits the Prime Minister, who will want to go to the country before the calm that follows
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Gordon Brown addressed the dourness question last week. It was the first time I had heard anyone rude enough to put it to him. Although, as the Prime Minister's interviewer in this case was Sir Alan Sugar, it may have been part of the act. In an interview for The Sun, Sir Alan told Brown that "some people say" he has "a kind of dour way" about him.

Brown responded: "Where my mother came from in the north of Scotland, if it was sunny on one day people would always say, 'Aye, but it will be raining tomorrow.' So he knows what dourness means. But I actually don't think I am that," he added. And he isn't. In private, he can be mischievous and funny. But his public image as a serious leader for serious times could be what lies behind Labour's recovery in the opinion polls, which is confirmed by our ComRes survey today.

Gordon Brown's mother came from Insch, in Aberdeenshire. Not far from the sort of places where it can take the fire brigade an hour to arrive in an emergency; where the tale survives of a firefighter, anxious to justify his wages, telling a caller in a burning croft: "Keep it going until we get there."

That exactly sums up Brown's dilemma. The credit crunch has been the saving of him, but he may need the urgency of crisis to keep up his relative popularity. He needs to phone the markets and say: "Keep it going for 18 months until I call the election." But economic crises tend not to maintain their intensity at such a pitch for so long. No wonder that speculation at Westminster about a 2009 election is so persistent.

Nor has Brown done anything like enough to hose it down. If there are many more polls like ours, the speculation will take on a life of its own. Remember that the last time a frenzy about a snap election gripped the media-political complex, at the end of September last year, Labour was briefly enjoying an average nine-point lead in the polls. It was pointed out at the time, most importantly by Ed Balls, the Prime Minister's spare brain, that this was the best that it was likely to get for him as the new broom. He was overruled at the time. But how true this turned out to be.

Now, Brown may have to settle for a lower ambition. Level pegging is now the best it is likely to get for him. However, the strange engineering of the British voting system means that neck and neck in share of the vote could be enough to return Brown to No 10 with a working majority. If the polls stay as they are at the moment, this realisation will start to roll the juggernaut of general election speculation down the slope.

Yet, at a gathering of opinion pollsters and poll-watchers that I attended last week, a 2009 election was decidedly a minority view. He ought to go for an election next year, but he won't. That is because the message that "things can only get worse" is hardly a persuasive line of argument to use with a politician as cautious as Brown. It didn't persuade him in the autumn of 2007 and is unlikely to do so now. On the contrary, the argument that I hear around Westminster is that the master-strategist has got himself into a win-win situation.

It goes as follows. If the recession is deep, then the voters will continue to rally around him as the dour and experienced Chancellor-turned-Prime-Minister. Regardless of the paradox that he was in charge when "something happened in America", as he explained it to Sir Alan, the voters will stick with him.

On the other hand, if the recession turns out to be not as bad as the markets (including the political market) currently expect, Brown can claim that it was his prompt and decisive action that averted something worse.

Well, as Kenneth Clarke said of one of Thatcher's battier statements about Europe, it is "a point of view". I do not agree with it. I agreed with Ed Balls in the autumn of 2007, and, if he is advising Brown to go early now, I am with him again.

Both parts of the win-win theory are flawed. If the recession is bad, do not expect Brown to escape the blame as easily as he has done so far. The significance of Peer Steinbrück, Germany's minister of finance, who criticised Brown's "crass Keynesianism" on Thursday, is not that he is German but that he is a finance minister. For three months Brown has basked in the approval of economists, appearing to set a lead for finance ministers around the world. It looked as if "everyone agreed" that his borrowing to pay for tax cuts was right and the Conservatives were wrong to want to "do nothing". Now we have a credible witness to give evidence on the other side.

Equally, if the recession turns out to be shallow and short, it should be remembered that electorates do not do gratitude. James Purnell, current holder of the title of "next-Prime- Minister-but-three", told the Blairite Progress conference last month that Brown had "rightly been congratulated for helping lead the world's response to the credit crunch". But, he warned: "If we think that we will be rewarded in the long term for that fact alone, we will be making a mistake." He went on: "Elections are fought on the future promise, not the immediate past." So the question becomes not what do you think of how Brown has handled the crisis, but who do you want as Prime Minister for the next four or five years?

Another cabinet minister complained to me the other day about Labour's old-fashioned language with a surprising admission: "Sometimes you hear the Conservatives and they sound a bit modern." David Cameron may be slipping back in the polls now, but all the evidence from his three years as leader is that voters are drawn to him if he is on television a lot – which he has not been during the credit crunch but which he would be in an election campaign.

If Gordon Brown's supporters told people in Aberdeenshire that their man had closed the gap in the polls, they would reply: "Aye, but it will be raining tomorrow."