Steve Richards: Time flies when an election looms

It is already too late for any party to change tack, let alone replace a leader
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Epic themes claim our attention. The great debates of our times focus on debt, spending, the role of the state, markets and leadership. And yet over the next few months the seemingly trivial matter of the compressed parliamentary timetable will have a profound impact on the course of British history, at least as important in its practical consequences as the substance of the seething controversies over policies and personalities.

Although the summer is only now ending, in political terms the next one is not very far away at all. The great themes are discussed as if there is still some time for arguments to be resolved and strategic decisions to be made. The parliamentary timetable means there is virtually no time left before the next general election is under way and at that point it is too late for parties to change tack, let alone replace a leader. It is almost too late already.

The historian AJP Taylor argued famously that the course of the First World War was determined by the puny issue of railway timetables, on which the mobilisation of troops was dependent. Even if countries wanted to change their military plans they could not do so because the timetables were in place for at least six months, and to alter them would cause chaos.

Taylor's mischievous revisionism has been in itself widely revised, but he was on to something big. The tyrannical rigidity of timetables can change everything, in a military battle at the beginning of the last century or a political one in Britain now.

Parliament does not return until 12 October. It will take a break for Christmas and probably return in mid January. The following session is likely to be heavily truncated as all eyes turn to the election and an already discredited parliament becomes more restless and pointless.

Speaking to influential ministers and aides I get the impression that their favoured month for an election is next April. In theory they could hold out until June, but that would mean going to the country in the immediate aftermath of the May local elections when Labour is expected to do badly. This option is already ruled out. There will be no June election. Obviously a general election could be held on the same day as the May local elections and it is still a likely option. But that date is the equivalent of going right up against the buffers when the media and perhaps voters will be getting impatient.

John Major chose to call an election in April 1992 rather than hang on for a few more weeks. He recognised there were more dangers in delaying than in taking the plunge. Brown might well be tempted to make the same move, in which case he will announce the election date next March.

That means the current parliament will be meeting for only two more full months, this November and next February. The rhythms of the truncated parliamentary timetable have their own inflexible force. When MPs return in mid-October the focus will be on two big parliamentary events, the Queen's Speech and the pre-Budget report, the second being incomparably more important than the first.

By the time both of these events have played out Christmas will move into view. Christmas starts early at Westminster and I suspect that the key players will want to get something of a break before the long haul towards the election. Tony Blair headed for the sunshine of Australia to recharge his batteries during the Christmas before the 1997 election. Political leaders need to be a little warier about holidays for several reasons these days, but a break of some sort will mark the end of the year before the start of the next.

The new year will be a turning point. When MPs return in January the election campaign will be as good as under way. In January 1997 Gordon Brown as shadow chancellor made his bombshell announcement that Labour would stick to Conservative spending plans for two years and not put up income tax for the entire parliament. The substance of the announcements remains questionable, but the timing was perfect. Labour's campaign had begun. Similarly in January 1992 the Conservatives began their onslaught on Labour's tax plans with a poster campaign. They were off. They will be off this January too.

The truncated parliamentary timetable has consequences. I find it hard to envisage quite how Labour changes its leader. Is there space this autumn for a leadership contest? In which case is the pre-Budget report and the Queen's Speech postponed until a new leader is in place?

If the change is contemplated in January, does Labour want to spend cash on a contest when an expensive election is weeks away and when the policies are in place? The Tories dumped Margaret Thatcher in November 1990 when there was still plenty of space for readjustment in the parliamentary timetable. I am not ruling out the possibility, but the logistics of timetables are one of several mammoth problems.

In relation to the current deranged tax-and-spend debate the timetable plays its part. I am told that the current thinking in government circles is to go for quite a detailed set of proposals in the pre-Budget report so that ministers can argue, with justification, that although voters might not like their painful cuts the Conservatives are pledged to cut deeper and more speedily.

As the pre-Budget reports needs considerable formalised preparation the strategic decision on how much to say in advance of an election – and the details that accompany it – must be taken shortly, within weeks. The Conservatives too have little time left to decide how much of their spending policies to release in advance. Worryingly, but unavoidably, decisions will be made according to the demands of the parliamentary and electoral timetable, rather than the likely state of the economy in a year's time.

On the eve of the conference season there is a sense in all the parties that options are still available to them on a range of policy and strategic fronts, as if time was not an issue. And yet they are about to take part in the equivalent of a speeded-up film. Autumn has barely begun, but spring is almost here.