Sunday, 7 February 2010

The phoney war of election speculation

The General Election will take place on Thursday May 6th 2010, as any fule kno.

There was a concerted Tory effort in December to suggest that David Cameron and his team thought a March election "more likely than not". (As Daniel Finkelstein noted sceptically at the time, there is a long tradition of that type of opposition briefing). Insiders have told journalists they were surprised at how much traction an election timing rumour very largely pushed by the opposition party managed to get.

I feel similarly unswayed this morning by the news that Iain Dale's "political antennae" suggest that "the chances of a March election have considerably increased tonight". PoliticsHome made "April Election mooted" its lead story from the papers this morning, based on a Telegraph story containing nothing much new.

The case for May 6th remains clear.

In fact, it has got stronger.

The idea that Labour should avoid a Budget was always wrong-headed. It would help the Tory attempt to seek a "doctor's mandate", avoiding scrutiny about unspecified cuts in return for offering to leave the NHS out of it.

That should be increasingly clear as the Conservatives incoherently close down their own spending argument, now adopting a strategy of minimising the differences between the parties having called loudly for much deeper cuts to start immediately.

As The Observer editorial comments today:

That was a humiliating U-turn, bringing Conservative economic strategy into line with what the government has said all along. A difference of substance has been downgraded to a difference of tone. That is a big problem for Mr Cameron, because substantial ideas to clarify the Conservative position are in short supply.

Often, when the Tories try to strike a distinctive pose, they prove unable to hold it without wobbling.

With the Conservative leadership having significantly undermined their own case, the Budget would also see the increasingly vocal right-wing dissent towards the Cameron and Osborne strategy stepped up, unless the Tory leadership were by then to have zig-zagged back in the other direction, as may be quite possible too.


The idea that April 15th/22nd or May 6th could make an enormous difference to the outcome of the General Election is fanciful.

One can argue various points in one direction or the other: another quarter's GDP figures, which may perhaps show a slowly strengthening recovery, or indeed a fragile and weakening economy.

But they are not going to be decisive.

I can see only two tangible differences. With local elections on May 6th, the additional expense of holding two major of elections in three or four weeks would naturally be criticised as unnecessary. The amounts may be small in terms of overall public spending, but the symbolism of unnecessarily spending millions apparently in pursuit of partisan advantage means that any such attempt will anyway backfire.

Secondly, local election turnout will of course be much lower if the elections are separated, especially if people are asked to vote a second time in a month. That would have a disproportionate effect on the Labour vote in elections where Labour can expect to make some significant local gains, seeking control in Liverpool and Islington for example.

Clearly, a Prime Minister could rightly regard the local elections as a secondary consideration if a matter of weeks over the General Election timing might make some enormous difference. Since it won't, there would be little sense in showing no concern for the morale of the candidates and activists who will be the lieutenants and footsoldiers in the General Election campaign too.

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