Early election talk looks a wind-up

FOLLOWING last year's fiasco of the on-off General Election, speculation that Gordon Brown might fancy his chances of winning a snap poll in the spring ahead of the Budget is be sweeping through Westminster.

Graham Dines

FOLLOWING last year's fiasco of the on-off General Election, speculation that Gordon Brown might fancy his chances of winning a snap poll in the spring ahead of the Budget is be sweeping through Westminster.

It's generally recognised now that Labour's handling of General Election talk was primarily to cause panic in the Tory ranks. This it did, but the Conservatives' response led to a spectacular opinion poll lead for them and the election never was.

It seems remarkable that the credit crunch, bank failures, rising unemployment and yo-yoing fuel, heating and food prices should have brought Labour off the floor and to within 3% of the Tories. The Prime Minister has been so successful in portraying himself as the man for the crisis that the public, for now, has bought his spin.

An election in the middle of an economic downturn is barely credible, but if Brown's rejuvenation holds over Christmas and through the early weeks of 2009 when families have to start paying the bills, he could be tempted.

And it would avert the danger of Brown being boxed in and at the mercy of events during the winter with no sign of any early relief from bad economic news.

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Three months ago, Brown was a dead man walking. Sections of his party hated him and Labour was 18% behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls. Today there's no talk of a leadership challenge as he surfs the economic waves.

But buyer beware! As irresistible as such a scenario of an early may be to Labour election strategists, the Prime Minister is cautious by nature. Poll ratings can evaporate as quickly as they appear, and to cut and run on the back of a “spend now, pay later” solution to the economic downturn could be risky indeed.

As an avid reader of political history, Brown will remember what happened to Harold Wilson in 1970 and Edward Heath in 1974 when they tried to take advantage of the difficulties facing the UK. Both had a year of their mandate left but they gambled and lost.

If not a spring election, then one in June to coincide with the European parliamentary and county council elections is another option.

But it's more likely that Britain will go to the polls either at the end of October next year or May in 2010. The last time the UK had an autumn election - October 1974 - Labour won. As then, next year's party conference would have to be abandoned, an economic blow to Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester which venues for next year's gatherings.

Whatever date he settles for - and once again, I trumpet my belief that we should have fixed term parliaments rather than giving the Prime Minister of the day the power to hold elections when he thinks he has the best chance of winning - the countdown has already begun.

This Parliament is well past the half-way mark and in less than 600 days - by Thursday June 3 2010 at the latest - Mr Brown must face the voters.

CARSWELL RIPPED APART BY TORY GRANDEES

SIR Patrick Cormack, the Tory MP for Staffordshire South and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington & Chelsea), two of the Conservatives' “grand dames,” were decidedly uncomplimentary about Harwich MP Douglas Carswell when he introduced a Private Members' Bill in the Commons to replace county and regional police authorities with elected justice commissioners.

Mr Carswell claimed appointed police authorities “are not up to the job because they fail to hold chief constables effectively to account, and they do a poor job representing local people. Too often, the authorities see it as their job to defend 'their' chief constable against attacks on his or her performance.”

Mr Carswell, exponent of the “direct democracy” brand of right wing Conservatism, said there would be no danger of a rabid populist being elected commissioner. “The police would remain entirely operationally independent. The law would still be the law.

“As for populist politicians, we might end up with a Rudy Giuliani (former mayor of New York) or a Ray Mallon (elected mayor of Middlesbrough and former top cop) in every town.”

To which Sir Patrick, quoting an aside from Sir Malcolm, said “or a Sarah Palin” leading the Harwich MP to assert “better we have a Sarah Palin than another Sir Ian Blair.”

Objecting to the Bill - which was nevertheless given a First Reading but which has no chance of becoming law - Sir Patrick was at his imperious best. “I really think this is an awful lot of populist claptrap. It would politicise the police. People would stand for election on party tickets and for populist policies. Frankly, the Bill is a prescription for anarchy and disaster.”

NAUGHTY BARNEY

PRESIDENT George W Bush's pet dog Barney has reacted badly to the news that he will soon be replaced as the nation's first canine. When a reporter reached down to pat the Scottish terrier, the usually docile dog snapped at him and bit his index finger, causing an injury that needed treatment by the White House doctor. Barney returns with his master to Texas on January 20, having had his nose put out of joint by President-elect Barack Obama's election night promise that he will buy a puppy for daughters Malia and Sasha.

MACKINLAY FUMES

AN Essex Labour MP has hit out in the Commons at ministerial “arrogance” after the Prime Minister twice declined to answer a written question from him relating to the intelligence and security committee.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) asked Mr Brown on two occasions earlier this year to name the clerk and secretariat of the committee. “On June 17 and October 13 on the advice of John Scarlett (director general of MI6) and Gus O'Donnell (Cabinet Secretary) the Prime Minister declined to answer my question as to who is the clerk of the so called intelligence and security committee.”

However, on consulting the civil service yearbook he found the name - Emma-Louise Avery. Mr Mackinlay stormed: “It's arrogant . . . to refuse to answer a reasonable question and it's got to stop - right from the top of the pyramid down to assistant regional ministers,' he said to Tory cheers.

GET OUT THE ORANGES

NELL Gwyn would be proud of the European Parliament - oranges are to be provided free to schools throughout the 27 member bloc.

It's part of a 500million euro (£421m) scheme to tackle obesity in 22million children in the European Union, a figure which is expected to rise by 400,000 annually.

The decision over what sort of fruit and vegetables that will be offered to pupils will be left to individual EU countries - but the project was immediately criticised by Jeffrey Titford, the UK Independence Party MEP for the East of England.

“It is being dressed up as all about concern for the welfare of children. However, the real agenda is a disturbing mix of 'Nanny Brussels' control freakism, sheer naked propaganda, and market fixing,” said Mr Titford after the scheme was approved 586-47 in a European parliamentary vote.

“Brussels likes to be in control of everything, including what we eat. Putting itself in charge of what children eat at school is the first major step in that process. The propaganda angle is that each piece of fruit will have an EU label on it.”

PASSENGERSRIGHTS@EC.EUROPA.EU

The European Commission has published an emergency email address to help air passengers facing flight problems. The move reflects frustration in Brussels that EU-wide rules bringing in compensation for cancellations, overbooking and undue delays are not being fully implemented by some airlines.

The email address to which passengers can send queries about the impact of strikes, flight cancellations, prolonged delays and overbooking is passengersrights@ec.europa.eu.

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