Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Double or Quits – Brown bets the farm on St George’s Day

Today was the day in which I was convinced that the budget would be held paving the way for an immediate dissolution of Parliament tomorrow and the commencement of the shortest-possible 17-working-day campaign to Thursday April 8th, when Brown reasoned many Tory voters in marginal seats would be on holiday during Easter Week. Sorry. I got it wrong.



During the Norwich North by-election campaign I got to bump into quite a few leading personalities from the various parties but it was a chance conversation with a senior Tory that suggested that Labour's election tactic would be to hold a budget and then immediately call the election without the inconvenience of a Finance Act debate in Parliament, when the budget figures would unravel.

So, back on 1st August when the Norwich dust had settled I started to look at the dates. My mistake was to assume that an election date would be chosen that allowed a budget to take place before the election yet allowing a Finance Act debate to take place afterwards in April having allowed time for the delays for the swearing-in of new MPs. I figured the whole job would be knocked-off by the first week in May.

I concluded that, particularly with the coincidence of Easter, the budget would be delivered on March 10th, one of the earliest practical dates. As it happens of course, the budget date has been announced on March 10th one of the latest practicable dates for delivery on March 24th. So what went wrong?

For ages, it looked like my insight was correct. The PBR was set for 9th December and a budget cannot be held within 3 months of that. So it looked like a 10th March budget was ‘on’. And I’m sure that was part of the plan in Whitehall. A March 10th Budget gave ‘options’. And that’s what politics is all about.

And then in February when it became clear that the first quarter’s economic figures would be severely knocked by the loss of 2 weeks output to the snow and ice and the 1st quarter’s stats being released on St George’s Day, it seemed that hanging-on for May 6th was very risky.

So, when the polls appeared to narrow and the sense of momentum seemed to be swinging towards Labour, on Valentines Day I updated my August analysis in 'Two Stags Lock Horns, Budget or Bust'.

In that article, I made a passing reference to the feud between Chancellor and Prime Minister that seemed to determine the election date. Who would be most dominant? Darling: the man to choose the budget date or Brown: the man to choose the election date. That day, Darling announced in the Telegraph that there would be a budget thus scotching talk of a March 25th poll. He boxed the PM in. With Brown on the rack from Bullygate, Darling was on-top.

The fact that the PM today announced the budget date rather than the Chancellor indicates a role reversal and now neither of them trust each other with the lights out. Sparks ahead for the Budget narrative.

So, with April 8th now out-of-the-window and May 6th nailed-on, not least because of the local elections in the Mets, Parliament must be dissolved by April 12th.

The decision to go to a May poll is high risk for Labour. Although Parliament must be dissolved by April 12th at the latest for May 6th, there’s an Easter recess to be squeezed-in before then, and I can’t see MP’s being called-back for a day just for prorogation, not that they actually have to return to London, nowadays. [Note that the Easter recess dates are still to be set.]

The brutal practicalities of this mean that the Election campaign will start on Thursday 25th March, the day after the budget and immediately before Easter, meaning a long campaign during which the broadcast media will be compelled to give equal weight to all parties. I think this is a really significant thing. It's why I wrote about the rules that strict cover broadcasting during the campaign here.

So, I’m not sure why Labour is risking a free-pass to the other parties for longer than absolutely necessary. You’d have thought that they’d have learned from John Major in 1997, who allowed one of the longest campaigns in history and paid the price accordingly.

Perhaps they think the momentum really is with them but when it comes to elections, Mike’s third rule applies. If you’re defending a lead, keep it short and sweet.

I’ve written before that Labour & LibDem’s are fishing in the same pool. The longer the campaign, the more the exposure the LibDems will get so the better the LibDems will do at the expense of Labour and, all other things being equal, that means that the Conservative lead will increase, even if their share remains constant at 38-40%.

I still think that Labour could have sealed-in some of their recent advances by going early. There’s a saying in politics, ‘Quit whilst you’re ahead’. But now they’re risking it all. The more you’re on the box, the better you do in the polls. And Labour have most to lose from a long campaign.

With equality of media coverage during the campaign, they’re betting the farm on those Q1 figures on St George’s Day being positive. If the figures reflect the shocking start in January, it will derail their ‘don’t risk the recovery’ meme with a fortnight to go. Ouch. And with unease in the currency market, who knows what could happen.

Of course, Labour could maintain the fiction that June 3rd is still on the cards but even I can’t see the generally risk-averse Brown throwing their local councillors to the lions on May 6th, from whom the party will rebuild itself in the event of losing control in the General.

So, whether by his own decision or having been forced to by Darling, going for May 6th Brown is now throwing caution to the wind. But then, Labour’s got nothing to lose. It’s double-or-quits.

But with the benefit of hindsight that tip-off in the Oaklands Hotel in Norwich last July that Labour would have the budget and go straight to the country without the inconvenience of a debate now turns out to have been right all along. I just misinterpreted it datewise. Logic indicated that Brown should go early. But Hey! This is politics. Who says that Logic applies?

But that’s no consolation to those that bet on April 8th. Sorry guys. We can’t win ‘em all. I really thought I'd got it nailed.

Bunnco – Your Man on the Spot

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

(AnneJGP)

I still think it will come down to inertia - parliament will simply expire. If so, it's debatable whether the local elections will be moved back to match. Inertia will leave the locals on the current day.

Peter from Putney said...

A great piece Bunnco, many thanks for that. May 6 has been the favourite date for many a long month and it shows just how even a Prime Minister has very few options in terms of GE timing. Yes, it saves his party a fortune by linking this in with the locals but at a very heavy price electorally - that of not being in a position to spring a surprise on your opponents.
Much is being written about the prospects for Labour were the economy to double-dip back into recession in Q1 2010. Personally I doubt whether this one statistic would have that great an impact, first because most voters will have made up their minds by then, second because not that many understand, let alone care about GDP and third because Brown would blame a return to recession on the January snow.
The one killer factor would be were the UK economy to be down by >1%, whilst the other major Western economies were up by at least the same degree - that would be difficult for Brown to argue his way out of.
Finally, can I put you on the spot and ask you to provide your first prediction of the GE result with or without appropriate caveats?

bunnco said...

Peter

I haven't forgotten about my GE forecast promise. I've been thinking a lot about it today. I wanted to do a PB2 piece because there are so many factors but have run out of time so I'll work-up something tomorrow or Friday. Some of us have to work you know!

peterelectionfollower said...

Many thanks for the article but with respect, Brown is not and probably throughout the campaign never will lead.

He will be trailing just like Major 13 years ago and therefore I think he is right to go for a 6 week campaign just like Major.

I have honestly always thought 6 May. Incidentally he may feel a LD boost will hurt Tories more than Labour which I think is possible.

Robert Barnes said...

Great piece, thanks. I still can't help wondering if Brown will chicken out when it comes to calling the May 6th election, and end up having to call it for June 3rd.

And yes, unfortunately that is my wallet speaking.

Rob

Chris A said...

Bunnco, I've replied on the main channel as it deserves a response there, but here's a copy:

Bunnco just read your election timing piece on channel 2. AFAIK the local elections can be postponed by Order in Council, i.e. a confirmatory vote late at night just before adjournment with only the whips probably being totally aware of what’s going on.

Also if you look on the Parliament website and click on the arrow to show the business for the week starting 29th March you get the message “The House will not be sitting this week” instead of “No business has been announced for this week”

So has the date for the recess already been set in government circles and is this admission a mistake? If they’re taking the whole week off before Easter then that only leaves two days of debate on the Finance bill before the recess and I doubt they’ll be back on Easter Tuesday, so you’d only have one day’s debate on 12th April after the recess and then dissolution if they’re going on 6th May.