Pressures grows on Brown as Tory fightback in polls cools election fever

Last updated at 09:47 05 October 2007

The prospect of a snap general election was still wide open today as Gordon Brown weighed up the conflicting evidence of narrowing opinion polls and a looming slowdown in the economy.

A clutch of opinion polls showed that Labour's lead over the Tories had been slashed in the past week, with one even claiming that the two parties were neck and neck.

The Guardian/ICM put Labour and the Conservatives on 38 per cent each, the Times/Populus put Labour on 39 per cent and the Tories on 36 per cent, while Channel 4/YouGov put Labour on 40 per cent to the Tories' 36 per cent.

Labour MPs in London and the South-East, where the party is defending marginal seats crucial to staying in power, made clear that they were worried about the polls.

But pressure for an autumn election appeared to increase as Chancellor Alistair Darling suggested for the first time that Britain's economic growth would be lower than expected next year.

If an economic slowdown kicks in over the winter, together with a housing downturn and job and bonus losses in the City, some Labour strategists say Mr Brown will find it difficult to opt for a general election in the spring or summer and would be best to go to the country now.

Mr Darling also hinted that he would outflank the Tories, making it clear he would deal with the issues of non-domiciled individuals and private equity chiefs.

Labour believes the Tories' poll bounce stems from their pledge to abolish inheritance tax on estates worth up to £1 million, funded by a levy on wealthy "non-doms" currently avoiding tax.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne renewed the Tory attack on Mr Brown, declaring that the prevarication in Number 10 showed the premier was 'bottling it' over an election.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell added: "What we have seen in the last three or four weeks has been what began as a tease becoming something rather more serious, really an abuse of the political process."

But Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly made clear the Cabinet was still confident of beating the Tories. "When I heard David Cameron say 'bring it on', I had one thought: 'Be careful what you wish for'," she told BBC1's Question Time.

Mr Darling said the election date was "the Prime Minister's call... But I didn't see anything in the last three or four days in Blackpool that makes me think that the Tories have resolved some of their ideological contradictions," he said.

Aides signalled that Mr Brown was 'getting on with the job' of Government as he approved the huge Crossrail scheme for the capital.

The combined pre-Budget report and three-year spending review is also on track to be delivered on Monday.

Mr Brown's inner circle were still keeping open the option of going to the country on 1 November or 8 November and a final call will be made on Sunday after all the polling evidence from marginals is pored over in Downing Street.

Stephen Ladyman, head of the Labour South-East group of MPs, said that fresh weekend polls would be crucial.

"If they show a 10-point lead for Labour it's a go. If its a two-point lead it's a no go. If it's in between, the Prime Minister will have to wrestle with his brain," he said.

Andrew Dismore, MP for Hendon and leader of the London group of Labour MPs, said: "I think what we have to say is does anybody really want it? And if not, let's take a deep breath."

Derek Wyatt, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey - Labour's third most marginal seat, with a majority of 79 - said: "No one wants it. I think we have to take it on the chin and move on."

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