Gordon Brown is keeping open the option of a snap general election but a new "poll of polls" for The Independent suggests that Labour's majority could be cut sharply if he goes ahead.
When he addresses the Labour conference today for the first time as leader, Mr Brown will set out the long-term agenda on which he will base his attempt to win a fourth term for his party. He will launch a drive to show voters he is more than just an experienced leader who is competent in a crisis, saying he has the policies to meet the challenges of the decade ahead.
The Prime Minister will not make up his mind on the election until after Labour's conference ends on Thursday. He may delay his decision until after next week's Tory conference, which would mean an election on 1 November rather than 25 October.
The latest "poll of polls" shows that Labour has a four-point lead over the Tories in this month's surveys. It puts Labour on 38 per cent, the Tories on 34 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the figures, said Mr Brown's decision was "on a knife edge" as it was "far from clear" that they provided a solid case for a snap election.
On a uniform swing, the latest figures would give Mr Brown a majority of 88 – 22 more than Labour won in 2005. But Professor Curtice said other factors could reduce the majority to just 32, which would not be seen as a strong personal mandate for Mr Brown. He said the polls normally overstated Labour's level of support and the Liberal Democrats usually gained a couple of points during the campaign.
Amid fears that the conference will be overshadowed by election fever, Brown allies tried to lower the temperature yesterday. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, suggested the party needed "months" to lay out its policies. "It is important that the public are allowed to see the political choice before you make decisions about these things," he told BBC Radio 4.
However, some of Mr Brown's close allies are urging him to go to the country next month or in early November. Insiders said Mr Balls' remarks should not be read as a sign that an election this year was off.
Further pressure for a snap election came from Labour MPs in marginal seats and an Ipsos MORI poll in today's Sun newspaper showing Labour on 42 per cent, the Tories on 34 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 14 per cent.
Peter Mandelson, the European commissioner and former Labour cabinet minister, paid a warm tribute to Mr Brown's performance, signalling a rapprochement between him and hardline Blairites.
He told a Progress fringe meeting in Bournemouth: "As a party we can be proud of ourselves, proud of him, proud of passing seamlessly from one prime minister to the next, from one version of New Labour to the next."
In a letter to Labour's national executive committee, seen as Mr Brown's draft election manifesto, he said: "We have come a long way. But to achieve our goals and ensure lasting change for the good in our country, we need to be prepared to change – change to make reality of opportunity, change to meet the rising aspirations of the British people, and change to adjust the new challenges of the decade ahead."
He listed the six big challenges as rising aspirations, including on public services; the need to raise education standards because of globalisation; security and terrorism; the rising number of elderly people in the population; climate change and the pressures on parents and children.
In a BBC TV interview, Mr Brown insisted his thoughts were not dominated by election timing.