As rumours abound that Gordon Brown might call a snap general election in February, Iain Dale has been stoking the fire with some gossip (albeit gossip subsequently rebutted by the ad company concerned). Nick Robinson offers calm assessment of the likelihood of an early poll. He believes that, in the teeth of deep recession, the Prime Minister wants the option to go to the country in February, but is unlikely to use it whilst his party is still behind in opinion polls. This morning's Guardian ICM poll puts the Tories under 40% but still five points ahead of Labour. If the gap narrows further in January Brown would surely be tempted.
The Conservative party will push the notion that Brown is giving the date serious consideration. If an election is not then forthcoming, it should be possible to paint Labour’s leader as the man who ran away from the country – twice. If the rumours gain legs, and Cameron’s party will seek to ensure that they do, Brown could be irreparably damaged. Certainly in terms of calling an election any time before spring 2010 (when Labour will have unequivocally acquired the taint of recession).
Cameron himself has been fighting back on suggestions of equivocation on social issues, implied by Labour as he refused to match Brown’s financial crisis spending plans. The Conservative party has vowed to box clever on the economy, targeting tax cuts where they will be most beneficial, rather than ploughing neck deep into a trough of public indebtedness, which is Labour’s strategy. The danger is that the government can attack Cameron as a free market Tory, unconcerned about poverty and inclined to side with the rich.
In such circumstances it is particularly important that the Conservative party sticks to its promise to realise progressive ends by conservative means and stresses compassionate social policy. To this end Cameron was entirely right to contend that ‘a day of reckoning’ is required to hold rich bankers to account for the part they have played in the unfolding economic crisis. Their fecklessness should carry consequences and any hint of wrongdoing must be thoroughly explored. Any Conservative government should give the FSA tools to both regulate and investigate.
He is even more correct to assert that forcing mothers of children as young as one to prepare to return to work is wrong. Although both parties are agreed that those who can work should be encouraged to do so, it is discriminatory to deprive children from poorer homes of a parent at so tender an age. Single mothers, all mothers, of pre school aged children should have the option of remaining at home without fear of having their benefits stopped.
Cameron has pitched his message just right on this issue, supporting the government’s attempts to get people off benefits and into work, but insisting that the threshold on mothers is too low. It is a contention entirely compatible with his emphasis on fixing society. It represents the type of communitarian conservatism which saw his party build up such a strong lead in the first place.
If Conservatives can assure voters that sound housekeeping and economic realism does not necessarily correlate with abandoning any sense of compassion, their poll lead is likely to rise once again. It is their luxury and Brown’s problem that going to the country is his decision to make. The Conservative Party must keep its message consistent and be prepared for an election at any time. On the mainland that should be eminently possible, although the new Conservative and Unionist force in Northern Ireland could surely do with a few more months!