Leading article: A shambolic episode and a self-inflicted wound


For weeks, speculation about an early election has dominated politics and overwhelmed all other issues during the party conference season. Gordon Brown and some of his closest allies were content to fan the story, calculating that it would work to their advantage. Yet at the end of the drama, Mr Brown had no choice but to rule out an early poll in a bleak context that leaves him damaged and could have been so easily avoided. No prime minister would go the country half way through a parliament when polls suggested that his party was lagging behind its main political opponents.

In his BBC interview yesterday, Mr Brown could not admit publicly that the polls were a factor. He was in another trap. To make a public admission would have been a humiliation too far. In not making it, Mr Brown displayed a lack of candour that was emblematic of this entire episode. When he became Prime Minister, Mr Brown set out to prove that he would restore trust in the Government. He would be the consensual father of the nation, addressing parliament, working with others outside Labour and dropping some of the spin techniques associated with his predecessor. The election fever of the past few weeks has conveyed a different message. It has stripped away this image, showing that Mr Brown is a ruthlessly partisan leader, making calculations for party advantage in the run-up to what he hoped would be an autumn election.

Astonishingly, the trap was self-inflicted, a surprising display of political ineptitude. Mr Brown could have kept open the option of an early election without allowing his aides actively to encourage speculation. Instead, the rising frenzy served to unite the Tories in what became a pre-election rally at their conference last week. In turn, that conference, together with their well-targeted tax announcements, gave them a boost in the polls that made an election in already volatile circumstances far too risky for Labour. The contrast between this shambles and the way Mr Brown had managed deftly to achieve such a smooth transition from the Blair regime is nothing short of astonishing. He is left weakened, his recently built coalition of support looking precarious at best, while David Cameron has recaptured the political momentum after a shaky summer.

The key political question is whether the drama has long-term significance. For Mr Cameron it must be daunting to contemplate another two years of impotent opposition. Mr Brown has the levers of government to help him regain a sense of purpose. Almost certainly, he will dissect ruthlessly the Conservatives' tax and spend plans while adopting their more popular policies. It is possible that Mr Brown will soon purge the memories of recent days. On the other hand, the economy might be weaker by the time the election is called and Mr Brown will not be able to offer novelty and change to the electorate after ruling as Prime Minister for more than a few months. Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has demonstrated leadership under fire, and emerges stronger, gaining the upper hand just a week after seeming to be in a dangerously fragile position.

In truth, no one knows how the political situation will look in 2009, Mr Brown and Mr Cameron included. Even so, the events of recent days were not a trivial contrivance. They signal the end of Mr Brown's honeymoon with the voters and much of the media. Both the main leaders will be expected to offer clearer definition as they prepare for the long battle ahead and will not be able to get away with banalities about "change" without specifying exactly what form the change would take. There will be no election this autumn, but the frenzied speculation will leave its mark. Substance, not spin and froth, may determine the next election result – which is not a bad thing to emerge from this mess.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent