There was of course no General Election of 2007 in the United Kingdom, but for a good few months everyone expected there would indeed be one, and this is the story of the General Election that never was.
When Tony Blair became Leader of the Labour Party and led his party to victory at the General Election of 1997 he did so on a promise that he would stick to the previous government's spending plans for at least the next two financial years. Thus were born what are now known as the 'hairshirt years', between 1997 and 2000, when Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown followed the "eye-wateringly tight" plans of his predecessor Kenneth Clarke, and government spending actually fell by 0.2% a year. Then came the 'years of plenty', or the 'splurge' period from 2001 to 2008, when the brakes came off and huge sums of money were pumped into such priority areas as health and education. As a result, government spending, which had been 37.2% of GDP in 1999-2000, steadily increased and is now expected to hit 42.4% of GDP in the current financial year of 2007-2008.
Leaving aside the question of whether the public has actually seen any benefit in terms of improved public services as a result of this extra spending, or indeed why, after a period of sustained economic growth, the government finances remain in deficit, there are of course limits to the extent to which any government can keep ramping up expenditure. It has been known for some time that these limits have been reached, and after the feast there comes the famine, or at least the years of restraint, as the next three years from 2008-2009 to 2010-2011 will see the growth in government spending being pegged back.
Under the terms of the now legendary Granita Pact, Gordon Brown agreed to stand aside and support Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party on the understanding that Blair would, in turn, similarly stand aside and support Brown as his successor. After his third successive victory at the UK General Election of 2005, Tony Blair indicated that he would not contest the next General Election as Prime Minister, but promised to serve a full term, thereby appearing to fulfill the terms of the aforementioned Pact. (There has of course never been any doubt that Brown would indeed succeed.)
Unfortunately the very last thing that Gordon Brown wanted to do was to be forced to fight a General Election as Prime Minister in 2009 or 2010 after two or three years of comparative austerity in the public finances; far better to fight an election in 2007 or 2008 before all this bad news became apparent to the electorate and hope that by that time the next election came around something had turned up. It was therefore believed by many that the various political shenanigans that took place during 2006, by which the Brownites endeavoured to persuade Blair to go early, where inspired by this very desire to allow their man to get his election in early.
As we now know the objective was finally achieved and Gordon Brown was returned unopposed as Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister on the 27th June 2007, and on the following day almost every newspaper in the country reported that Brown was planning for a General Election in the spring of 2008.
3. The Summer of 2007
Once Brown became Prime Minister there followed a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, which included the set piece defection of a Conservative MP, and various other initiatives calculated to portray Brown as a national leader eager to encompass all shades of political opinion, or 'big tent politics' as his supporters liked to put it at the time. Margaret Thatcher was invited round to tea at Downing Street and Brown spoke of himself as a conviction politician and implied that he was the true heir to the Thatcherite legacy. Although as Private Eye rather saracstically pointed, almost every one of Brown's initiatives had their exact counterpart during the first hundred days of Blair's assumption of power back in 1997 (he had Thatcher around for tea as well), so that in truth it was not so much a case of a 'new style of politics' as the same old style of politics reheated in the Downing Street microwave.
Now life in the Conservative Party changed in December 2005 with the election of David Cameron as their Party Leader. Suddenly the Conservatives looked vaguely electable for the first time in more than a decade, performed well in the local elections in both 2006 and 2007, went ahead in the opinion polls, whilst the same polls showed that Cameron would enjoy an even greater lead over Gordon Brown than he did over Blair. Unfortunately things started to go wrong for Cameron in the summer of 2007 just as Brown took over. First of all there was the Grammar school row, then there was the party's rather lack lustre performance in the July by-elections. There were also signs of bickering in the party, with the right wing complaining that Cameron's talk of 'modernisation' was an abandonment of the party's traditional values, whilst the left wing complained that he wasn't modernising fast enough.
Therefore in the weeks following Brown's assumption of power it seemed as if the Conservatives were falling apart just at the time that the Labour Party were apparently discovering a new found vigour and gave rise to what became known as the Brown Bounce, when the Labour Party, after two years of trailing the Conservatives in the polls, suddenly surged ahead.
4. Election fever
The emergence of the Brown Bounce prompted Prime Minister Brown to hold a cabinet meeting at Chequers on the 26th July 2007 where the subject of an early autumn election was discussed and during which Douglas Alexander was told to place the party on an election footing. Throughout August the opinion polls continued to show Labour ahead and by the time the Labour Party conference took place during the 23rd September, delegates talked of almost nothing else other than an election, and the only question appeared to be whether the election would be in late October or early November.
After the conference closed on the 27th September, Labour's lead in the opinion polls rose to eleven points and MPs in marginal seats were said to be clamoring for a quick election to take advantage of the situation, leading to such newspaper headlines as 'Election fever rages as Gordon Brown’s lead grows' in The Times and variants thereon in the rest of the press. The temperature rose even higher when Gordon paid a surprise visit to Basra on the 2nd October to announce that 1,000 British troops would be back home by Christmas (being entirely coincidentally the same day that the Conservative conference was discussing defence matters). It was soon apparent that 500 of this 1,000 had already been announced in June by the Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne, (and that in fact 250 were already home), whilst Brown's announcement incurred the wrath of former Prime Minister John Major. Major's complaint was that Brown had already promised (by way of contrasting himself with his predecessor Blair) that he would abandon the politics of spin, and would in future only make such announcement before the House of Commons.
Since John Major rarely intervenes in current politics, the media takes him seriously when he does have something to say, and his criticism of Brown's behaviour rather undermined any political advantage he might have hoped to gain by this stage managed photo opportunity. Neveretheless it provided a very clear sign that an election was in the offing. Interested observers also noted other indications, such as the major recruitment drive (closing date of the 5th October) recently launched by the Labour Party, and the fact that it had asked the unions to ante up their subscriptions early. It was also known that ministers had told their staff to take home files ahead of an announcement on the 9th October, and the pre Budget report normally delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in December each year, had been brought forward to the same Tuesday. The clear signs were therefore that the election would be announced on the 9th October with the date set for the 1st (or possibly the 8th) November 2007.
5. A week is a long time in politics
As referred to above, the Conservative Party had their own conference which opened on the 30th September, which became notable for two things. Firstly the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne announced on the 1st October that a future Conservative government would raise the inheritance tax threshold from £300,000 to £1m. Leaving aside the question of whether the Conservative proposals to pay for this tax cut were in any way practicable, this commitment was precisely the kind of thing that plays well in Middle England. Secondly David Cameron then gave an end of conference speech on the 3rd October that even The Guardian felt obliged to refer to as a "closely argued and fluent address" and a "virtuoso speech", or what the Daily Telegraph called a "largely flawless tour de force", and the Daily Express a "rousing battle cry". The highlight of Cameron's speech being a direct challenge to Gordon Brown to "Call that election. We will fight, Britain will win". Which, given that his party appeared to be eleven points behind in the polls appeared to be an astonishing act of bravura.
Nevertheless his speech did raise the party's morale and indeed almost the minute the Conservative conference was over The Times was offering the opinion that an election was now less likely, and in the days that followed the polls appeared to show that the Conservatives were closing the gap and that victory for the government was no longer assured. By Friday 5th October the situation was such that Brown had decided against an election and had secretly briefed the editors of the four leading newspapers that this was the case. The decision was made to announce this news to the nation when Brown was interviewed by Andrew Marr on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show broadcast on the Sunday, although naturally enough the news was widely leaked beforehand.
As it transpired this was probably just as well (from Brown's point of view at least). A YouGov poll in The Sunday Times of the 7th October actually put the Conservatives three points ahead of Labour, whilst an ICM poll for the News of the World put the Conservatives six points ahead in a number of key marginal seats, which of itself would be sufficient to wipeout Labour's majority in the Commons. (Things were even worse a week later when a "shock new poll" revealed that public support for the Conservatives had now surged to its highest level for fifteen years.)
The general tone of the media reaction to Brown's decision not to have an election was clear from their frequent use of the word humiliating, as in humiliating climbdown or humiliating retreat, the general opinion being that Brown had simply bottled it. Even The Observer, which in conjunction with its daily stablemate, The Guardian, has been the most cravenly pro New Labour of all the broadsheet papers, felt obliged to publish a leader under the headline 'Brown will pay for his unwise gamble' and said that the whole affair made him "look opportunistic and insecure".
6. Damage exacerbation
Naturally the Labour Party engaged in a damage limitation exercise
in which its leading lights tried to persuade everyone that the opinion polls weren't that important. The Deputy leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman appeared on GMTV to say that the opinion polls where simply one of "a number of reasons" for not calling an election, but then rather put her foot in when asked whether the affair would damage Brown by saying "we shall have to see" as opposed to "of course not". Ditto Jack Straw who appeared on the BBC's Today programme, to tell everyone that the "opinion polls are one of the factors that we take into account - it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise, and I don't think anybody is doing that." As it happens Jack Straw was quite wrong, there was indeed at least one person who was putting forward the "ridiculous" suggestion that the opinion polls played no part in the decision and that person was Gordon Brown himself.
That was the position he took during during the Marr interview and again at a press conference on the 8th October, when he categorically denied that the opinion polls had anything to do with his decision not to call an election. Brown claimed that he had simply listened to the suggestion that he hold an early election, before finally deciding against holding one. It must be said that no one believed a word of this. As a rather irritated Tom Bradby, the ITV political editor complained, "Come on, you did more than listen to the idea of an early election. You and your advisers marched us all up to the top of the hill. Surely you changed your mind because you thought you might lose. Why can't you just admit that?"
If anything, Brown's persistent denial of the obvious truth just made matters worse and in consequence he suffered something of a mauling during Prime Minister's Questions on the 10th October when the best defence that he could come up with was that the public didn't want an election either, and cited an online petition calling for a general election had only attracted 26 signatures. Whereas this might have raised an easy laugh from the Labour benches at the time, three days later the number had risen to 13,000, and whilst this was considerably less than the 20,000 or so people who apparently wanted to 'Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister', it was sufficient to embarass Downing Street into a terse "no comment" afterwards.
7. Where does this leave us?
There has been a school of thought that the whole talk of an election was always a bluff and that Gordon Brown was simply trying to get the Conservative Party to panic and announce a series of vote grabbing proposals which Labour would promptly rubbish and then reintroduce as its own at a later date. There was evidence of this in that the Conservative Party's proposal of a) increasing inheritance tax limits and b) introducing a flat rate tax charge on non-domiciled residents, announced by Osborne were duly rubbished by the Labour Party and then adopted by Chancellor Alistair Darling in his pre-Budget statement on the 9th October. (Although in this case the rather brief intervening period made the whole thing rather obvious.)
However if Brown's whole strategy was indeed a bluff, he was rather out-bluffed by Cameron, or as Williams Rees-Mogg put it in The Times "Brown blinked first. It’s that simple", and at the very least the whole affair has transformed the media perception of Gordon Brown. Initially regarded by the media as a Prime Minister of undoubted gravitas and stature, he has now suddenly been transformed into "a weak, shifty, dishonest, spin-crazed incompetent", as Private Eye put it with only the merest trace of hyperbole.
However Brown's real problem is that he was placed in the position of saying that it was also unlikely to be a General Election in 2008, so that both Plan A and Plan B have now been scuppered, and there won't be an election until at least 2009, which of course is precisely what he didn't want to happen in the first place. Worse may be to come as there are indications that some of the more diehard Blairites such as Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke, and Charles Falconer are ready to crawl out of their foxholes and start spreading doubts as to whether Brown really is cut out to be the leader.
Whether any of this will ever matter is an entirely different story. It may well be that Brown will triumph in the next General Election and lead the Labour Party into ten more glorious years in power, and the whole thing will become nothing more than a footnote in the history books. Or it may well be that Brown has just handed the Conservative Party a big stick which they will now use to repeatedly hit him over the head with until he finally stumbles bleeding into opposition.
The above account is based on various reports and articles in the British media. It is however merely one selective and opinionated version of events.