A week ago it looked as if the prospect of an early general election was disappearing like the deposits in the Northern Rock bank. But then something extraordinary happened. Black Monday became Brown Tuesday, as the first run on a British bank in over a century turned into yet another demonstration of the Prime Minister’s ability to handle a crisis.
Newsnight’s ICM poll on Friday showed that voter optimism about the economy has actually improved after Northern Rock. Labour’s lead over the Tories on the issue is now 25%. The economy has traditionally been the rock on which Labour governments foundered. Not this time. The rock has held in Downing St , raising once again the prospect of an election on October 25th.
As his first Labour conference as leader kicks off today in Bournemouth, Brown is keeping his cards so close to his chest that not even his closest friends can see them and most commentators still think he is more likely to delay than go. The PM likes to think of himself as a moral individual and he is worried about being called an opportunist, a political spiv, by rushing to cash in on his recent success. There is a tradition that governments with a comfortable majority stay in office for at least four years.
But some influential Labour people are saying he should reset his moral compass and start asking himself whether he has the right NOT to take this opportunity of winning his own clear mandate from the people. After all, he has become Prime Minister, essentially, through “buggins turn”, without an election in his own party. Only two months ago, the Conservatives were demanding that Brown hold an election to address his democratic deficit. Maybe they were more right than they realised.
There could be trouble ahead, and the Prime Minister needs to know that he chas the country behind him. Anyone who believes the banking crisis is over after the panic of Northern Rock hasn’t been reading the financial pages. The most likely outcome is a rise in repossessions and a fall in UK house prices - such is the forecast of no less a figure than Alan Greenspan, ex-head of the US Federal Reserve, and one of Brown’s financial mentors.
The geopolitical outlook is no less worrying, with an unstable American President staring at defeat in Iraq and yet actively contemplating a new war against Iran. The military situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse, and whatever happens there are likely to be many more British casualties - more than eighty have died already. The head of the army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt has warned of a “growing gulf between the army and the nation” following the mistakes over Iraq. An election might show that the British people were fully behind this Prime Minister in this conflict in a way they never were behind his predecessor over Iraq.
Then there is the domestic front. Britain has changed in the past year, and there are serious questions being raised about the viability of the United Kingdom. There are nationalists in power in Scotland, and sharing power in Wales and Northern Ireland. The English Question has not been resolved, and there is unease about the voting rights of Scottish MPs in Westminster. There are are a number of people, not least in the Labour Party, calling for a referendum on Europe. Brown could make a strong case for holding an election now to resolve these and other constitutional issues, and to affirm the unity of the British nation that he talks about so effusively.
Those who think that the Prime Minister would not dare go to the country because of the SNP honeymoon in Holyrood are mistaken. In fact, wiser Labour insiders realise that an early election could be the most devastating way of marginalising Alex Salmond. Even with their growing popularity, the nationalists are unlikely to gain more than a couple of seats in Scotland in a general election. Many Scots who voted SNP in May, or who stayed away because of Iraq, would vote Brown in October. Labour would return with perhaps forty seats to the SNP’s eight, allowing Brown to claim that he had stopped nationalism in its tracks and demonstrated - without any need for a referendum - that Scotland was settled in its opposition to independence.
Brown has ‘connected’ with the British voters in a way no one expected six months ago, not even his greatest admirers. The “clunking fist” has been replaced by a sensitive politician with a sure touch achieving level of trust which few thought possible. Last week’s opinion polls were extraorindary, showing that the Northern Rock crisis has actually made Brown more popular rather than less. Newsnight’s ICM confirmed that 71% British voters are now confident about the economic future. Labour is back to an 8 point lead in the Guardian/ICM, and Brown has a commanding personal lead over Cameron. But what is more striking is that Brown is in he lead on almost every issue from the economy to asylum and immigration.
Brown’s handling of the foot and mouth outbreak and the English floods demonstrated his calm, unsensational authority - “Not flash - just Gordon”. He has also managed to finesse the withdrawal from Iraq without falling out with the Americans or appearing to sanction humiliating defeat. Brown has managed to communicate to British voters by a series of political gestures than would look contrived and shallow had anyone else tried them. For example, taking tea with Maggie on the eve of a Labour conference when the trades unions are already disgruntled over pay and changes to the party constitution. How does he get away with it?
Well, partly because people don’t seem to see through Brown. Most saw a Prime Minister magnanimously respecting an old adversary, perhaps cocking a snook in the process at the Tories, not a Labour politician honouring the great class enemy. It’s the same with the banking crisis. We suspend disbelief. Arguably, Brown should have been out there much earlier to calm Northern Rock nerves. But people don’t see this as political cowardice, but astuteness. They believe he was sorting things out behind the scenes, not hiding from the nation.
This kind of credibility is rare in modern politics and it is perishable. Events will eventually expose Brown’s more manipulative side, and the moral mask is bound to slip. But not yet. By seizing the moment, Brown could ensure another two terms of Labour government by winning a decisive early victory over the Tories.
Cameron’s experiment in Blue Labourism, already in difficulties, would be finished. After Cameron, there is nowhere for the Conservatives to go - they have had five leaders in the last ten years, and would likely split into the neo-thatcherites around John Redwood and the Notting Hill neo-liberals around George Osborne. There is no law says there has to be a Conservative Party in opposition, and it is possible that the Tories could go the way of the Liberals after the 1920s - into electoral oblivion.
Such an election could also establish Brown on the international stage as the moral leader of the progressive forces of the world a a moment of real danger. So, the question is not whether he should risk it, but whether he can risk not going for an early election. True, he has a comfortable majority and two years in hand, but these are unusual times presenting exceptional challenges. Go for it Gordon, you may never get a better chance.