Gordon Brown is clearing the decks for an immediate general election by speeding up the announcement of a plan to raise National Health Service spending to £100bn a year.
The Prime Minister has ordered the Whitehall machine to gear up for the possible announcement early next week of a November ballot. If he decides to go ahead, the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, setting out the Government's plans for the next three years, will be unveiled on Monday – nine days earlier than was planned. The centrepiece will be a rise in health spending to take the NHS budget, currently at £87.6bn a year, past the £100bn mark for the first time by the end of the three-year period in 2010-11.
Although overall public spending will rise each year by only 2 per cent on top of inflation, health and education will be the big winners. Education spending will grow by 2.5 per cent in real terms over the next three years and the health budget by more than that – but the annual rises will still be well below those of recent years. Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, is still bargaining with the Treasury over the precise figure.
In what is already being called "Super Monday", the spending review could be accompanied by Alistair Darling's pre-Budget report, which was also due to be delivered on 17 October, and Mr Brown's long-awaited statement on Britain's future role in Iraq. He could then ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament on Tuesday, allowing an election to be held on 1 November.
Senior Labour sources insist no decision has been taken, dismissing the measures as sensible "contingency planning" to give Mr Brown the option of an early poll. They say he will not make up his mind until after David Cameron's closing speech to the Tory conference today and after seeing if the Tories get a "bounce" in the opinion polls.
Some Brown advisers say the Tories' decision to unveil plans to cut inheritance tax and stamp duty for first-time buyers are an argument for delaying the election until May. They are convinced they can "pull apart" the Tory plan to fund the moves by imposing a £25,000 annual levy on foreigners living in Britain who pay little tax by claiming "non-domicile" status.
Other Labour figures are urging Mr Brown not to pull back from calling an election. "We are half way down the ski slope with no brakes," said one. Members of Labour's national executive committee have been asked to spend four days next week approving shortlists of candidates in constituencies which have not yet chosen them.
Sir John Major, the former Tory prime minister, launched a strong attack on Mr Brown yesterday, accusing him of stoking "feverish and foolish speculation day after day" to destabilise the opposition parties. He called on Mr Brown to say whether or not he would call the poll.