Leading article: Right decision, wrong reason


Gordon Brown has come to the right decision, but apparently for the wrong reasons. Now is not the time for a general election. There is no demand for it. There may be great issues that could be put to the people, such as the measures needed to cut global warming, or Britain's relations with the European Union, but the Prime Minister proposes no big changes in government policy.

There was a plausible case for an election when Mr Brown became Prime Minister three months ago, on the grounds that the country's leadership had changed. But it was hard to argue that it was democratically necessary. David Cameron was guilty of the sheerest opportunism when he declared on the day Mr Brown took office: "Gordon Brown doesn't have the mandate; he wasn't elected as Prime Minister, and he should go to the country."

The conventional principle of parliamentary democracy – that the people elect a party, not a prime minister – was good enough for the Conservatives in 1990 when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher. But if that were not enough, the 2005 general election was a special case. Not only was Mr Brown called upon by Tony Blair to play a prominent part in the Labour campaign, but Mr Blair had also said, unusually, that he would not lead the party into the following election. So, whatever the close textual analysis of his pledge to serve a "full third term", the terms of the deal were explicit: if Labour won, someone else – most probably Mr Brown – would take over at some point. The Conservative charge that this would somehow be contrary to the wishes of the voters was exploded when they tried to run the pre-election slogan "Vote Blair, Get Brown". They were forced to abandon it promptly because they discovered that it encouraged more people to vote Labour. Broadly speaking, voting for Blair and getting Brown was what the country did in 2005.

Indeed, the mood of the country since 27 June has been one of slightly surprised satisfaction at the way Mr Brown assumed his responsibilities. Certainly, the mood of this newspaper was one of goodwill towards the new Prime Minister. The few policy changes he made were mostly sensible, and the tone he set was welcome, especially on the threat from al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism and on relations with the United States. We were disappointed by the apparent lessening of urgency on the question of climate change, but encouraged by the desire of the Government to be seen at least to be listening more.

In the past two weeks, Mr Brown has put all this at risk, quite unnecessarily. The mystique that he carefully preserved, derived from his remarkable stewardship of the nation's finances, is being frittered away. We knew, of course, that he is a highly effective politician, capable of spin and some cynicism. After all, the posing with Margaret Thatcher on the doorstep of No 10 was an example of both. But in that case he had the excuse of politeness: he could not stop the old girl from having her moment in the flashbulbs.

This time, there was no excuse. As John Rentoul points out today, Mr Brown's advisers told journalists that the Prime Minister was studying opinion polls as he considered whether to call an election. They confirmed that the deciding factor would be party-political advantage. What was surprising was that they did not even bother to invent a reason that might make it look as if Mr Brown would make the decision in the national interest. The best they could do was to confirm that the Prime Minister would like to have his own mandate from the voters – a mandate that Mr Brown himself said, in a radio interview two weeks ago, that he did not need.

He could and should have ended the speculation then. The timing of yesterday's recorded interview makes it look as if the clinching factor was a poll of marginal seats in a mass-market newspaper.

This is no way to run the "new politics" that Mr Brown so recently promised. Indeed, the way he stoked election speculation makes that promise look insincere. One of the powers of the prime minister that Mr Brown proposed to "give away", in his programme of constitutional reforms, was the power to decide the election date. The fraudulence of the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons offering to yield a power of decision to a majority in that House has been quickly exposed.

This has been a damaging episode for Mr Brown. Not because the Opposition will accuse him of cowardice; that is what oppositions are for. But because it makes us look again at the way Mr Brown has drawn attention to his calm authority in the face of bomb plots, flooding, foot-and-mouth outbreaks and a bank run. At the time, we thought his composure was reassuring; now it looks more like an attempt to secure political advantage by striking the right poses.

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