Steve Richards: Gordon Brown has been saved by his own mistakes. If only he would learn from them

The PM has no choice but to rethink his broader strategy if he wants to remain on the throne
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The Independent Online

Politics moves at a breathless pace. Towards the end of Labour's giddily misjudged party conference a fortnight ago, I argued that, far from being doomed, David Cameron had become the luckiest figure in British politics. By hyping up the possibility of an election, Gordon Brown and his allies had handed Mr Cameron a lifeline.

Now I suggest that exactly the reverse is the case. Mr Brown appears to be the doomed leader, in despair as he wakes up to nightmarish headlines. What will torment the Prime Minister more is the thought that after ten years of patient, agile manoeuvring under the most intense, highly-charged political conditions, he blundered clumsily in a fortnight without being under any pressure whatsoever. Still, politics speeds on, and in the depths of gloom it is Mr Brown who becomes the luckiest political figure in Britain.

Imagine if the weekend's poll showing a significant Tory lead in the marginal seats had come out after the Prime Minister had called an election. He would have been trapped and heading for a catastrophe from which there was no escape.

Such a nightmarish sequence for Mr Brown was quite possible. Even when the polls suggested a sharp narrowing of the Labour lead at the end of the Conservatives' conference, some of Mr Brown's allies were still inclined to go for an early election. The more starkly bad polls in the marginal seats came just in time at the weekend. There had been much talk of Mr Brown agonising about the decision. As matters turned out, he made up his mind very quickly. Forget about Prime Ministerial protestations to the contrary, the polls played their part in the decision. Even Labour's internal survey suggested that the marginal seats had become flaky.

Mr Brown was saved from an election by his previous ineptitude. The miscalculation had been so grave, uniting the Tories rather than fatally undermining them, the risk of dashing to the country was finally and obviously too great.

As a result, he lives to fight another day with a secure majority. To take momentum away from the suddenly soaring Tories in four weeks during a dark, autumnal election would have been almost impossible. Now he is damaged, but free from the self-inflicted agonies of the last few weeks.

Will he make the most of the space that has opened up after the decision not to fight an election in the strangest of circumstances? That answer depends partly on whether he learns the obvious short- term lessons that arise from the debacle.

The error had nothing to do with "dithering'" or "bottling it". Mr Brown was right to keep the option of an early election open. He was also right not to go ahead at the moment of decision. Always, prime ministers keep their options open when it comes to elections. As my colleague, John Rentoul, has pointed out, John Major faced a similar dilemma when he kept alive the possibility of an autumn election in 1991. His decision not to call one surfaced quietly on Channel 4 News one evening during the Labour conference that October. I recall the incident well. I had recently joined the BBC's army of political correspondents and the revelation had been so quiet that no one from the generously staffed corporation had picked up the story, either from a private briefing or when it was broadcast on Channel 4.

Partly courtesy of the BBC, Mr Major pulled off his retreat without any fuss at all. By co-opting the media in the election game, Mr Brown caused the maximum of fuss. In addition, and with a neat symmetry, he underestimated David Cameron's capacity to make waves in the same way the Conservative leadership had misjudged the likely impact of Mr Brown when he rose to the Prime Ministerial throne.

Now Mr Brown has no choice but to re-think his broader Prime Ministerial strategy if he wants to remain on the throne for very long. Most obviously, he must be prepared for a more scathing media. Imagine, for example, if he invited Mrs Thatcher for a cup of tea this week. He would be torn apart for a cynical act rather than hailed as a strategic master tormenting his opponents. There must be no stunts for a long time. Every public word must be also carefully considered to ensure that the cliché "spin" is not thrown at him again.

Some critics also suggest that Mr Brown's election miscalculation was emblematic, on the basis that he has offered no more than a series of superficial tactics rather than an overall strategy since becoming Prime Minister. This is not the case. He had a pre-election strategy that included a subtle revision of the Blairite reforms to public services without being "anti-reform" and an attempt to make the relationship with the US more businesslike without appearing "anti-American". His strategy was proving so successful that he fell into the early election trap. As one of his close allies told me: "We did not expect to be where we were by the end of the summer."

His problem is not a lack of strategy but the need for fresh thinking in the suddenly changed circumstances. Mr Brown's pre-election strategy was predicated on his previous assumption that he would probably call an election next spring. Now a poll next year is unlikely. Therefore he must put much more meat in his pre-election dish than he had previously contemplated. At yesterday's Downing Street press conference Mr Brown claimed: "I do not only want to explain the vision. I want to implement the vision." He better mean it. Much more explanation is required, along with the successful implementation, if there is not to be an election until 2009.

Yet he is the lucky one. Mr Brown continues to pull the levers while Mr Cameron must wait. As Tony Blair used to exclaim in moments of impatience when leader of the Opposition: "Governments can act. Oppositions can issue a press release." Expect a move from the Government to tax non- domiciles soon. I know for certain Mr Brown was already planning to make such a move on the timid basis that even the mighty Daily Mail had come out in support during the summer. It is a tax on non-domiciles that would supposedly pay for the Conservatives' plans to cut inheritance tax.

As a result of the likely demolition of his policies unveiled last week, Mr Cameron also faces a wider challenge in the new non- election landscape. There is probably another 18 months of press releases, photocalls, speeches and initiatives ahead of him. It is a long time after the climactic of last week, and while the Tory party was never as fractious as some were suggesting ten days ago, it is not as formidable as is being claimed in the current oscillating political mood.

Mr Cameron enjoys the novelty of a second political honeymoon, but he would have flourished more if Mr Brown had been foolish enough to call an early election.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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