Gordon Brown has given the clearest indication so far that he has decided on a May 6 General Election, revealing that the Government will set out what could be its last Budget just two weeks before he formally asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament.
In a politically charged speech on the economy yesterday, made in the City of London, the Prime Minster confirmed that the Budget will be held on March 24. It means that a snap election in April is now extremely unlikely.
Mr Brown signalled he was happy to place character at the heart of the election. In a throw-back to the “Not Flash, Just Gordon” slogan devised by ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi in 2007, Mr Brown distanced himself from the polished image of David Cameron by telling his audience: “For better or for worse, with me what you see is what you get.”
His Budget announcement has firmed up the key dates leading to election day. Mr Brown could ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament on March 29, after his speech to the Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow, but party officials are said to favour starting the campaign after the Easter break.
As a result, the most likely date for Mr Brown to head to the palace will be April 6, the first day back after the Easter bank holiday. That would allow for a few days of frantic activity in the Commons, known as “wash up”, when the Government will attempt to push through as much of its outstanding programme as possible.
The formal election campaign would then begin on April 12, with the launch of manifestos. For the first time, the campaign will also be punctuated by three televised party leaders' debates, beginning on April 15.
The run-in to the ballot contains some possible pitfalls for Mr Brown, especially on the economy. He admitted yesterday that there would be “bumps in the road” to recovery, with inflation, trade and unemployment figures all due to be announced between the Budget and the election.
He also appeared to prepare the ground for a possible “double dip” recession, which could be announced when economic growth figures appear just a fortnight before the likely election date. “Let us be clear: although the economy is now growing, recovery is still in its early stages and remains very fragile,” he said. “There will be many months ahead of conflicting statistics, false hopes and mixed signals.”
But Mr Brown will have opportunities to cement his reputation as a political figure on the world stage. He will head to Brussels the day after the Budget for a meeting with fellow EU leaders. He will also visit Washington in April for nuclear arms talks.
In a swipe at Mr Cameron's carefully crafted image, Mr Brown said that “character is not about telling people what they want to hear but about telling them what they need to know”.