Gordon Brown came under mounting pressure yesterday to call a snap election this autumn as a new opinion poll put Labour 11 points ahead of the Tories.
Another bout of election fever gripped the Labour conference in Bournemouth, where delegates were put on full alert for an early poll and issued with a 96-page "campaign toolkit". Peter Watt, Labour's general secretary, said in his introduction: "The preparations for the next general election are now well under way."
He told activists the information was designed "to help your local party be in the best possible position to fight and win the next general election".
As bookmakers Ladbrokes suspended betting on a 2007 election, close allies who are urging Mr Brown to call one on 1 November seized on the latest in a series of polls showing Labour forging ahead. The YouGov survey for Channel 4 News, conducted after Mr Brown's conference speech on Monday, puts Labour on 44 per cent (up five points on last week), the Tories on 33 per cent (down one point) and the Liberal Democrats on 13 per cent (down three points). Mr Brown's speech appears to have appealed to women voters, among whom Labour has a 16-point lead compared to a six-point advantage among men.
However, the public seems in no hurry for an election. Only 29 per cent want one this year, a figure that has fallen from 51 per cent since Mr Brown became Prime Minister. Some 39 per cent want a 2008 election, while 9 per cent favour 2009 and 9 per cent prefer 2010.
The election toolkit includes a day-by-day "grid" for a four-week local campaign, including a publicity blitz when the election is called. It tells activists: "The first 48 hours is one of the most important parts of the campaign. It is during the first 48 hours that many voters will consider the choices they face."
Leaflets have been drawn up including attacks on the "Tory threat to the NHS", a Liberal Democrat "wall of shame" on crime and an environment pledge card.
The party was given a warning by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, not to squander its lead by slipping into Tory-style divisions over Europe as he rejected calls by some Labour MPs for a referendum on the proposed European Union treaty. "Europe has divided them [the Tories] for 15 years and it's not going to divide us," he said.
Peter Mandelson, Britain's EU commissioner, angered the Brown camp by urging the Prime Minister to spell out precisely how he would achieve the goals he set out in his speech. He suggested that some pledges on the NHS and deporting foreign criminals would be hard to carry out. "We know the 'what'," he told BBC Radio 4. "What he's got to do now is to set out the 'how' and that is, I think, the challenge for him in the coming weeks and months."
At the conference today, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Schools, will build on Mr Brown's speech by announcing a programme of one-to-one tuition to help children with their writing skills. It will be similar to those helping pupils with reading and maths.
Mr Balls will say: "We need to raise our sights because we cannot rest until we have an education system that is world class and world class for all."