Prospect's counter-factual column, this month by Rachel Sylvester.by Rachel Sylvester / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
“Too. Many. Mistakes. Too. Many. Mistakes.” This was the phrase repeated by Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister as he thumped the desk in front of him in time to the mantra.The biggest political mistake of all, of course, was the decision not to call an election in 2007—having let all around him hype up the possibility for weeks on end. It was the end of his reputation as a statesmanlike “father of the nation” and a return to the idea that he was a tactical leader, indecisive, tortured and driven by self-interest.It was also the beginning of the Conservative recovery, following George Osborne’s surprise party conference announcement of an inheritance tax cut, shifting the balance of power at Westminster. Labour was never ahead in the polls again after the election-that-never-was. Damian McBride, in his book Power Trip, describes this as “the greatest misjudgement of Brown’s long career, utterly changing the way he was perceived and defined.”But what if Brown had called an election in 2007, seeking his own mandate soon after taking over the leadership from Tony Blair? The widespread assumption, including among many Labour MPs, is that Brown would have won a clear victory. Labour’s private polling at the time predicted a 20-seat majority—not as good as the landslides previously won by Blair but a respectable outcome. That is why Brown failed to close the running story down.
In fact, though, the result would almost certainly have been much closer. Even before the election had been abandoned the Conservatives’ private polling was already pointing to a hung parliament—according to Philip Cowley, professor of parliamentary government at Nottingham University, one internal Tory poll of 120 target constituencies at the time predicted that the Conservative Party would gain almost 90 seats (around 70 from Labour and 20 from the Liberal Democrats).
The personal bounce experienced by Brown on first becoming Prime Minister would have collapsed under the pressure of an election campaign—the inability to connect with voters, revealed by the famous encounter with Gillian Duffy over immigration in 2010, would have come out in another way.
Osborne would have produced some populist policies and the voters would have…