Sunday, 28 February 2010

Could there still be an election on 25th March?

Last week I speculated on the likelihood of Gordon Brown calling a general election for 25th March. If it was to happen, we would have received word over the course of last weekend. Well, that weekend came and went and so it seemed did any prospect of an election before the expected 6th May date.

Then this morning the Sunday Times published a YouGov poll that could be a possible game changer and bring 25th March back into play. It has the Conservatives at 37%, Labour at 35% and the Liberal Democrats at 17%. To put that into context, Labour won the 2005 general election with a 36% share of the vote, so they're just 1% off the pace.

Now it's important to say that this is just one poll and it's also YouGov's first poll under a tweaked methodology, which may have had some impact. However it does feed into the general trend in recent months of a decline in the Tory lead and regardless of its accuracy it will reinforce the idea that the tide is turning against them.

This reinforces my view that Brown's best chance of victory is to call the election for 25th March. The narrow gap between the parties means that a campaign is now winnable for the first time since he took office. In fact it's hard to see the benefits of waiting until May because March and April hold nothing but potential danger for the PM.

The first and, in my opinion, most minor danger is Brown's schedlued appearance before the Chilcot enquiry on Friday. Provided he keeps his cool, he should get through it with nothing more than a couple of days press scrutiny and if Iraq wasn't an issue at the 2005 election then it's hard to see how it would be now. However, a poor, tetchy performance from Brown could damage him. The bullying allegations have had no impact on Labour in the polls, but actually witnessing flashes of temper could make some people change their minds.

The second danger is the budget. We know from his recent interview with Sky News' Jeff Randall that Alastair Darling is working on the budget, but we still don't have a date. If there is a budget (and there would have to be one if it's a May election) it can only be received two ways, neither of them good for Brown. If it's an honest budget that sets out the scale of spending cuts and tax rises required, the voters will be spooked. Voters may want the truth, but as the saying goes, they can't handle the truth. If it's a dodgy budget that tries to hide the pain, the public will see it as as such and punish Labour accordingly. The budget is quite simply a lose/lose proposition.

The third danger is the Q1 2010 GDP figures which are due out on 23rd April. There's a real possibility that these could show the UK back in recession and in the middle of an election campaign that could be explosive.

If he chooses to then he has to go to the Queen tomorrow and seek a dissolution as there has to be 17 business days between that and the election. To do so would be highly unusual. Normally there's a few days between the PM seeking dissolution and it actually taking effect. This is known as the 'wash-up' period and it's used to tie-up the business of Parliament. The last time dissolution was sought and took effect on the same day was in 1924. Doing so tomorrow means that any legislation currently going through Parliament will have to be abandoned save for perhaps one or two important matters that Labour and the Tories can agree to speed through at a break-neck pace.

One final consideration is party logistics. Both the main parties are geared up for 6th May. For sure, they'll have plans for a snap campaign, but it's hardly ideal for either and it could be two weeks before polling day before both are fully up-to-speed. On the flip-side Labour's poor financial position makes a short campaign desireable, though when it comes to the crunch the unions will bail them out, so the importance of Labour finances can be somewhat overstated.

On balance I think that a 25th March election is now more likely than it was a week ago because the political planets are in alignment. But Brown is cautious - some would say a ditherer - so 6th May still has to be the favoured date. Maybe he'll surprise us though, going to see the Queen tomorrow would, finally, be a supremely confident act for a Prime Minister hitherto regarded as something of a bottler and for that, at least, he would deserve some credit.

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