The YouGov poll this in this morning's Sunday Times is the latest which shows a widening lead for Gordon Brown. I detect the beginnings of a bandwagon in the media for an October election. The Sunday Times leader column is headlined GO FOR IT GORDON. It concludes...
The bounce in Mr Brown's poll ratings show he should have nothing to fear by going to the country. We shall see in the next few weeks whether he has the nerve to do so.
On the opposite page Michael Portillo has a far more chilling column for the Conservative Party. In it he recommends that Brown should pull British troops out of Basra. Although a loose timetable has already been set to pull them out next year, Portillo reckons that should be brought forward as they can now achieve nothing more. He says that the only consequence of them staying is the needless loss of more British lives. This gives the Conservatives a real dilemma. It is almost inconceivable for Liam Fox or David Cameron to repeat that line, but if and when Gordon Brown announces a quicker withdrawal timetable, the Conservatives either support what Brown does, or they will be perceived as wanting to leave British soldiers in Iraq to risk death. I can see no middle way.
There is a school of thought that Gordon Brown would use the Labour Party conference to announce a significant and early troop withdrawal from Iraq, but at the time same time to announce that our forces in Afghanistan will be beefed up.
If I were him I wouldn't do that, as it smacks of party political electioneering. If Brown is the clever political strategist we purports to be, how about a scenario in which he announces a recall of Parliament in mid September for a debate on whether troops should be withdrawn. He shows himself to be respectful of the role of Parliament and he gives the Conservative Party to speak from several different hymnsheets. If I were him, I know what I would do.
By then, I imagine the media will be in full flight and the bandwagon for an October election will well and truly be moving. There comes a point where such pressure is irresistible for a Prime Minister. The one time when a PM has resisted such pressure was when Jim Callaghan went on national TV to announce he would not, after all, be calling and election in the autumn of 1978. Most pundits agree that if he had called it the, he may well have won (I disagree with that analysis, but that's by the by). It's a decision which still haunts Labour as it heralded 18 years of Tory rule.
There are two other considerations for Brown - the state of the economy and Scotland. Brown knows better than anyone what the economic prospects for 2008 and 2009 are. The slide of the stock exchange is likely to lead to worse economic news in the medium term, although more dreaded interest rate rises might be staved off.
Scotland is the fly in the political ointment for Gordon Brown. The SNP are trumpeting the latest poll, showing them at 48% to Labour's 32%, as well they might. However, the pollsters asked the wrong question. They asked how people would vote in an election for Holyrood, rather than Westminster. If those results were relevant for Westminster elections Labour would be wiped out north of the border. So Labour's private polling in Scotland will be crucial in whether Gordon Brown does indeed decide to go for an autumn election.
On the News 24 paper review last night, David Davies (ex of the FA) reckoned that Labour might not be able to afford an election. As Bernard Ingham might have said - bunkum and balderdash. If they need the money there are plenty of people who will provide it, not least the trade unions. They could also make a positive virtue out of being spendthrift and announcing they would not be buying a billboard advertising. Again, that would put the Tories in a bit of a fix.
All in all, I reckon the odds on an autumn election have shortened a little in the last few days. Last week I reckoned there was a 30% chance of an election this year. I'd put that now at 35%. As Tom Watson would say, what say you?