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

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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.

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