It would be fair to say that I am not close to Gordon Brown. Given that I am a Conservative MP, and our limited dealings have not been entirely warm, it is unlikely that the Chancellor would confide his deepest thoughts to me.
Nonetheless, I have a hunch that I know one of the Chancellor’s biggest secrets. The secret is that, immediately upon becoming Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister, Gordon Brown will call a General Election.
There are very good reasons for him to do so.
First, the political reasons. Most leaders have a honeymoon period. A leader’s authority with his party tends to be at its highest immediately upon being elected, the party itself tends to receive a great deal of publicity and much of it will be favourable. In all likelihood, the election of Gordon Brown may give the Labour Party a short term boost.
Obviously, Gordon Brown’s record and personality will be at the centre of any election campaign held immediately after he becomes Labour leader. Many Conservatives will be pleased (and Blairites concerned) at the prospect of this but the Chancellor is not lacking in self-confidence. He will welcome an Election that could be characterised as a “Referendum about Gordon”. He assumes he would win comfortably on those terms.
An early Election would discomfit the Conservatives, too. The Election would occur in advance of boundary changes that go a small way to counteracting the current imbalance in the distribution of seats. It also gives David Cameron less time to advance his methodical reform in the way the Conservative Party is perceived. Candidates will generally not be in place until the Autumn of this year, the policy commissions will not report until the Summer of next year and party policy is unlikely to be finalised until October 2007 at the earliest. Rightly, the Conservative Party is avoiding our past mistakes of trying to find quick fixes. But we are vulnerable if Brown decides to go early.
Would there be a price to be paid for Gordon Brown in cutting and running? My suspicion is that there would not be. In truth, many people would feel disenfranchised if the Prime Minister was changed without there being an Election. It is not difficult to imagine Gordon Brown, who has made noises about restoring trust and accountability and changing the relationship between the executive and the public, making a virtue of seeking his own democratic mandate.
This would be frustratingly unfair because the reality is that Gordon Brown would be cutting and running, which brings me to the second set of reasons why he may go early – the economy.
Many an opposition politician has proven to be wrong when predicting the imminent decline of the British economy in recent years. However, even on the basis of the Treasury’s own forecasts (which have been consistently over-optimistic in recent years), the state of the public finances in the period 2007 to 2009 will be precarious. Constrained by the “golden rule” (however discredited), the Chancellor has very little room for manoeuvre. He is already committed to a very tight comprehensive public spending round in 2007 and, if as many observers believe, growth falls below Treasury forecasts in the next three years, he will have no choice but to put up taxes.
Robert Peston’s fascinating book, Brown’s Britain, contains a section on how Gordon Brown was determined not to find himself in the position of previous Labour Chancellors of putting up taxes and cutting spending in the run up to a General Election. As a consequence, in 1997 the Chancellor was determined to control public spending and to increase taxes, enabling him to have a war chest available for the next General Election. In 2001, he again increased taxes in his post-Election Budget. This year, however, the tax increases are relatively modest. By 2009, it is difficult to see that there will be a war chest but a General Election will be fought in the context of restraint in public spending and possible tax rises. The Chancellor has got his electoral and fiscal cycles out of sync.
If this analysis of the economy is right, it further explains why the Chancellor is keen to get the keys to Number 10 sooner rather than later. Not only is there the residual fear that Tony Blair is going to let him down again, but he will want to become leader of the Labour Party before he has to make too many unpopular decisions and start alienating both the public as a whole and the Labour Party selectorate.
My final reason for thinking that Gordon Brown will go to the country as soon as he can is that he has hinted that this will be his course of action. In an interview with James Naughtie the day after this year’s Budget, the Chancellor, when asked about whether he was ready to be Prime Minister, stated the following:
“Tony Blair has said that he will not fight the next General Election, he has stated that he wants an orderly and stable transition over the next period. That is a matter for him. Then it is going to be a matter for the political party – the Labour Party – to make their decision. And then it’s going – eventually – to be a matter for the country.”
The word “eventually” gives the answer some ambiguity, but the fact that he mentions that, as part of the process of him becoming Prime Minster, this will be “a matter for the country” is significant. It is very difficult to reconcile Gordon Brown being Prime Minister for a couple of years before calling a General Election (which, at the time of writing is the received wisdom) with this answer.
At a recent Treasury Select Committee hearing, I suggested to the Chancellor that he would call a snap election on becoming Prime Minister. Of course, I did not get a straight answer, but his response did not exactly constitute a forceful denial. Anything might happen in the next few months and election timetables are notoriously unreliable. But don’t be surprised if we are on the campaign trail again within the next 18 months.