So now we’re sure the general election will be held on May 6th. Not officially. Firm knowledge on the day Gordon Brown decides (and it is his personal decision) to take the short car ride to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament. Which she certainly will, according to constitutional convention and because Parliament is near is legal end in any case. No, the unofficial confirmation of the date comes from the other various announcements that have been made, for instance about the budget – that’ll be held next Wednesday, the 24th – and about the Parliamentary Easter recess, which is from 30th March to the 6th of April. It’s then – just less than three weeks away – that we expect Brown to see the Queen. The election is almost upon us.
What this tells us is, first, that the Prime Minister feels fairly confident about the economic statistics that will be published at the end of April, figures that will say whether Britain continues even a fragile recovery or slips back into recession. He still might panic and go to the country before then, but would be visibly running scared. If there’s a chance the figures will look good, there was always a strong argument for his waiting for them. They may be politically priceless for him. Secondly, they tell us Gordon Brown may be preparing for a short election campaign, something that surprises some political commentators, since the long attritional period of pre-election talk has seen Labour narrow the gap with the Conservatives. Why not stretch the fight out even longer?
For two reasons, I think. First, precisely because the “phoney election” is going so well for Labour. Brown wants to stretch this surprisingly helpful period out as long as possible before changing the dynamic to the real campaign. Second, because Labour wants to fight a new type of campaign. The party is in real financial trouble, and while money from trades unions will come, it needs to neutralise what will surely be the Conservatives’ bigger spending power. The idea is to replace the type of election we’ve become used to – leaders expensively touring the country in helicopters day in, day out, glad-handing voters – with a much more concentrated fight centred on the three massively important, and entirely new, leaders’ debates. It’s not just about money, either. Psychologically, Brown wants to follow the phoney election, in which Tory support has gone soft as doubts have crept in – with a short, sharp wake-up campaign to focus minds more intently than ever on the choice between him and David Cameron. I’m sure he believes a short, intense campaign will help create the drama of choice he wants to produce.
Two political issues have high saliency right now. First, the fact that Brown has had to correct his evidence to the Iraq inquiry, having wrongly claimed that defence spending rose in real terms in every year he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was a blunder that’s done him more harm that the spending record merits, in truth. Second, there’s the British Airways strike, planned to start on Saturday. The strike is politically embarrassing for the PM because the union involved, UNITE, is the biggest donor to the Labour Party. David Cameron tried at Prime Minister’s question time to make the strike a partisan issue; Brown must stay above it, and hope next week’s budget blows it out of the headlines. Yes, many people fly with BA. But in truth, the strike will affect Anglotopia readers, on average, more then the woman in the number 98 bus or the marginal Labour voter, who probably won’t leave the UK until summer, if then. And those Brits who are affected won’t necessarily blame the union or Gordon Brown.
In non-political news, England’s footballers are living up to two of their deserved reputations. First, John Terry who I wrote about a few weeks back (and who was later stripped of the England captaincy) is in trouble again, this time for injuring a steward while driving, apparently after having had a drink following a game. Second, it was always on the cards that one of England’s stars would be injured before the tournament: that always happens. If it happens to Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, England really will be sunk. But it’s happened to David Beckham, still England’s most famous footballer internationally, although football watchers here know he’s past his best and would only have had a supporting role in the World Cup in any case. This is, in effect, the close of a distinguished sporting career. I’ve always thought Beckham overrated as a player, certainly not in the class of real England legends like Bobby Charlton or Bobby Moore. His considerable PR skills having gained him the international profile he enjoys. But even I can’t deny he was a very good player, who made important contributions that swung games for England at crucial times. Or that he was generally speaking a positive example of a well-behaved footballer. He once claimed to have no books in his expensive house, which didn’t impress me. But we may think worse of his coarser colleagues when he’s gone.
Beer? Happily, my local the Queensbury now sells real ale, I’m pleased to say: the quality of life in Willesden has just gone up a notch. Otherwise, I went to the Lamb, in Lamb’s Conduit Street, one of London’s fine old pubs, just north of Holborn. I’m very much hoping, whatever other cautious measures Alastair Darling takes in next week’s budget, that he doesn’t put more than a penny or so on a pint of beer. Much more than that, and all confidence could drain from my personal economy.