It was late at night while watching a young stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Festival that I became convinced Gordon Brown should not call an early election this autumn.
I should explain that at Edinburgh this summer I became addicted to the comedy performances, going to three or four a day. For reasons I will explain shortly, they told me as much about politics as a thousand visits to Westminster. The acts could be terrible or in a few cases very funny. It did not matter to me. Each stand-up event was an extraordinary piece of theatre with the dynamic between performer and the audience evolving unpredictably. Whether they were good or bad acts, no one was sure how the relationship would end, in tears or mutual cheers.
In the case of the late-night comic, the relationship was ambiguous. The audience laughed drunkenly, but I sensed they wanted to laugh more, if only the performer had worked more on his act.
Political leaders have much in common with stand-up comedians. Successful comics woo an audience in the same way that a leader builds up electoral support. The aspiring artists must win over an audience of varying ages and interests. Sex jokes are not enough. We can all do sex jokes. They are the equivalent of a political leader offering policies that meet only with the approval of the core vote. In the end, the different ingredients must come together to form a coherent whole; the material and the performance. If they do not do so, the audience will turn away.
For a new Prime Minister to call an early election, in Mr Brown's case nearly three years earlier than is strictly necessary, he must be sure that his relationship with the electorate is secure, that the material and the performance form a coherent whole. In spite of the buoyant opinion polls, Mr Brown is nowhere near in a position to make such a call with certainty. In policy terms there are too many loose ends. More broadly, his relationship with the electorate is still evolving. There are signs of rapport, but he needs more time to form a reliably firm relationship.
Mr Brown's loose ends are daunting. A poll earlier this week suggested that the Conservatives were still well ahead in relation to crime and the NHS. There should be no surprise about the findings on law and order. Britain has been portrayed as the equivalent of the shoot-out at the OK Corral during the quiet news month of August. But the poll deficit on the NHS shows that the departure of Tony Blair is not enough in itself to revive the faith of voters. Earlier this summer, Mr Brown announced a year-long review of NHS policies. This is the minimum time scale required for a review that demands considerable political tenacity if it is to succeed in changing perceptions. By the autumn, the pivotal review will hardly have begun.
Goodness knows where we will be in relation to Iraq when summer ends. Mr Brown does not know for sure, either. Iraq is the loosest of loose ends, with British soldiers being killed needlessly while the Government decides on the politically safest exit strategy. Mr Brown wants to keep in his big tent ardent Atlanticists like Rupert Murdoch as well as those who despair of Britain's subservience to the policies of President Bush.
What is strikingly obvious is that Britain's reckless, deluded military adventures need to look a little less deranged by the time an election is called. No Labour Prime Minister should choose to fight an election when Iraq commands the front pages still.
Then there is Europe. Next month, the revised EU Treaty will be the subject of an inter- governmental conference. The screams for a referendum in Britain will be louder than ever. This would not be the wisest moment to announce that there will be no referendum, but there will be an election after which the treaty would be ratified if Labour were to win. "Vote Labour, Say No to a referendum" does not sound like a vote-winning slogan to me.
There is no rational case for a referendum. Britain has so many opt-outs from the new treaty that even some of those screaming for a plebiscite will soon be demanding opt-ins so that crime and immigration can be better co-ordinated within Europe. But for now, whipped up by the media, voters could turn against a government depriving them apparently of a voice on Europe. Remember, in the past Labour offered referendums at election time on the euro or the constitution, making Tory screams about Europe seem bonkers. This time there is no offer of a referendum, and the lack of such a commitment, rather than the substance of the treaty, will be an issue generating hysteria this autumn. This is an argument that can be won, but not in the space of a few hysterical weeks.
Above all, there is the matter of Mr Brown and his relationship with the electorate as a Prime Minister. In his early months he made an impressive start that surprised none of us who have followed him closely over the years, but impressed those who had concluded foolishly that he would not be up to dealing with unexpected events.
The gods did Mr Brown a favour by unleashing the type of elemental forces which had punctuated Mr Blair's entire decade in power. No sooner had Mr Brown seized the crown and there were floods, foot and mouth, fears of a stock market crash and the occasional terrorist attack. It was the equivalent of watching Macbeth in three minutes. Unlike Macbeth, Mr Brown flourished in adversity, proving that he can respond to events.
But that is not enough to fight a victorious election campaign. Labour cannot win a fourth election on solidity alone. It must excite as well as reassure. Mr Brown needs more time also to dissect David Cameron's Conservative Party. Mr Cameron has several populist tunes at the moment. They will sound melodious still this autumn.
Over the summer, Labour's response to the Tories' various initiatives was complacent, dismissing them lazily as a lurch to the right. I have long argued in this column that Mr Cameron is much more of a traditional Conservative than the progressive liberal of the Daily Tele-graph's imagination. But he is a subtler opponent for Labour compared with his vote-losing predecessors. An effective demolition of Mr Cameron will take longer than the few weeks between now and an autumn election.
Mr Brown is in the position of the late-night stand-up comic in Edinburgh. He has more work to do before he establishes a fully secure relationship with his audience. I calculate that it will be the autumn of next year before he can call an election and expect a rousing cheer from the electorate when he takes a hopeful bow at the end of the campaign.Reuse content