On Tuesday, Gordon Brown asked the queen to call the election in May. Alex Massie on how the prime minister waited way too long.
At last, the phony war is over. After six months of skirmishing with the Tories, the Right Honourable Gordon Brown made the short journey from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for permission to dissolve parliament and call a general election to be held on May 6. By law, Brown had to call an election by June 3rd. But his decision to hold on to power for as long as possible in the hopes that something might turn up to rescue Labour from its plight now leaves him looking more like Mr. Micawber than a man truly confident of his destiny. By dithering and dallying, he has squandered a once-favorable electoral climate and all but ensured the end of Labour’s long rule over Britain.
Hanging on to the bitter end rarely ends well. It is not merely hindsight that makes one think Brown should have gone to the country sooner.
Brown has always been marked by caution. Where Tony Blair once argued that Labour was at its best when "at its boldest," Brown countered with the claim that Labour was best when it was simply "Labour." Blair, for a time at least, offered a vision; Brown presented himself as a Presbyterian Stakhanovite promising that no one would work "harder.” This was to be his great virtue: "Not Flash, Just Gordon" as one campaign poster put it.
And when the Tories were wobbling just two months ago, it seemed that Brown's drudgery might just pay off. For a few days in late February and early March, the gap in the polls narrowed to two points and it looked as though Labour might win an unprecedented fourth term—or at least have the satisfaction of preventing David Cameron's Conservatives from winning an overall majority themselves.
• Tina Brown: William and Kate Name the Date?That was the moment when a more brilliant, less cautious prime minister would have attacked, the moment when a Blair or a Thatcher would have gambled on striking a fatal blow. A March 25 election might have put the Conservatives on the back foot at a time when the party was worried about its own strategy and beginning to debate the wisdom of Cameron's entire modernizing project. Brown, however, dithered in his Downing Street bunker and declined to strike.
The moment passed and the opportunity was lost. Sunday's Yougov tracking poll put the Conservatives at 39 percent and 10 points clear of Labour. Their first poll of the year had the Tories at 40 percent and Labour at 31 percent. So we are back to where we were and the phony war has been, from Labour's perspective, a fruitless exercise. All that maneuvering and positioning and plotting and strategizing has produced nothing at all. All that has happened is that Labour has less time in which to turn matters to its advantage. They have played for time and now find it running out.
Hanging on to the bitter end rarely ends well. It is not merely hindsight that makes one think Brown should have gone to the country sooner. There were good reasons for Brown to have called an election in the autumn of 2007, just months after he finally succeeded Blair. Some of his closest advisers thought so too, and prepared the foundations for an autumn offensive.
At that stage Brown was still as much of a refreshing novelty as he could ever be. Moreover, he had enjoyed a good summer, demonstrating a sure hand in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and widespread flooding across much of England. This too was a moment for making hay while the sun shined.
But, not for the first or last time, Brown dithered. The Tories, for their part, were not ready for an election and terrified that Brown might go to the polls. So Cameron and his chief ally George Osborne attacked with all the meager forces they could muster, daring Brown to call the election while secretly hoping the prime minister would flunk the challenge.
Remarkably, the bluff worked. Brown backed down from a poll that most observers thought he'd win, preferring the certainty of another two and a half years in office to the risks of a snap election—even though such an election would have given him a clear, personal mandate.
Events then played their part. The great financial apocalypse—and London’s central role in it—ruined Brown's claims to economic sagacity. Not only had he failed to make electoral hay while the sun shined, he forgot to repair the roof, too.
This, inconveniently, makes it hard to campaign on Labour's record. So this week the party tried a new tack: The Tories, Labour said, cannot be trusted with the economy because they won't raise taxes by as much as Labour will. Tax cuts, Labour argues, will imperil economic recovery—not exactly the type of message you win voters over with.
In truth the Tories are not proposing tax cuts (except for small businesses). Rather, they are planning to increase taxes less sharply than Labour will. The Conservative position will leave every worker on average wages $250 a year better off. In the grand scheme of the fiscal problems facing Britain this is trivial, but importantly symbolic.
This curious tempest was a reminder that Labour's underdog status is real. The party hopes to parlay this into sympathy but the problem with being the underdog in a two-horse race upon which the public is invited to wager money is that such status suggests that many voters have already made up their minds.
Election post-mortems often give the impression that the result was somehow pre-ordained. But this is not so. If Labour loses, as the polls suggest it will, perhaps party leaders will rue their failure to grasp the initiative when it was there for the taking. Dithering, you see, is comfortable but expensive.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.