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Polls had nothing to do with election delay, PM tells incredulous audience

By Andrew Grice

Gordon Brown has accepted full responsibility for the fiasco over his decision not to call a general election next month but admitted that he should have announced it earlier.

The Prime Minister refused to join a "blame game" taking place in Labour circles over who advised him to go for a snap election before he finally decided against one on Saturday. But he denied scrapping well-advanced plans for a1 November election because the Conservatives had recovered in the opinion polls during their party conference last week.

An uncomfortable Mr Brown faced questions for more than 65 minutes at a Downing Street press conference – the most hostile he has faced since becoming Prime Minister in June. Several journalists expressed doubts about his claim that he was not scared off from calling an election by the turnaround in the polls.

Later, Mr Brown clashed with the Tory leader in the Commons when David Cameron accused him of "spinning" the number of British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq during a visit to the country last week, saying this was "not an acceptable way for a Prime Minister to behave". Mr Brown was jeered by Tory MPs over his decision not to call an election, while they cheered Mr Cameron for scuppering an election few of them wanted.

On a day when he faced the music on three difficult occasions, last night Mr Brown faced down Labour critics of the election saga at the weekly meeting of his party's MPs.

Tony Lloyd, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, reflected the anger of Labour MPs when he said Mr Brown had to show the public he was a "competent, trustworthy Prime Minister" rather than a "master tactician". He added: "What Gordon Brown's got to do is to get back to what he was doing so well over the summer, demonstrating that he can provide leadership for the country."

Although the meeting rallied behind Mr Brown, there was some criticism of what one MP described as "how we got into this mess".

The Prime Minister said Labour would secure a bigger majority by delaying the election. He argued that the prospect of one had "flushed out" key Tory policies, which Labour now had to dissect "scientifically, clinically and forensically". He promised to look into demands from Labour MPs for a change in the law to stop Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' deputy chairman, ploughing money into marginal seats before spending limits kicked in when the election is called.

The Prime Minister told his press conference that his "first instinct" on taking over the job was not to hold an election this year because he needed more time to show voters how he was governing the country.

He refused to blame advisers for the frenzy of election speculation, with some Labour MPs pointing the finger of suspicion at Douglas Alexander, the party's election co-ordinator, and Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary.

"I take full responsibility for everything that has happened," said Mr Brown. He added: "I could have made it [the decision on whether to call an election] earlier, perhaps I should have made it earlier, but I decided I would make my statement at the end of the party conference season. My first instinct was that I wanted to get on with my job of putting my vision of what the future of the country was to the people of the country and deliver on it before there was ever an election. But I did listen to people. I heard from candidates in marginal seats [who] were telling us we would win the election.

"We had had a summer dealing with issues from foot and mouth to floods to terrorism to economic and financial crisis. I had not yet had a chance to put forward my vision about health, about housing, about education, about the future of our economy and prosperity generally, and that is why I made the decision I did."

He welcomed a debate on whether the Prime Minister should lose his power to call an election, by switching to fixed-term four-year parliaments. But he said there would be "difficulties" because he believed a government had to command a majority in Parliament.

Mr Brown conceded that inheritance tax was "a major issue" and hinted at an independent investigation. But he pointed out that only 6 per cent of estates were currently affected, and said any reforms would have to be "fair, affordable and workable". He said he relished the prospect of putting the Conservatives' plans to raise the threshold for the tax to £1m under scrutiny in the coming months, claiming they had a £2.8bn "black hole" because they had over-estimated the number of non-domiciles, who would pay a £25,000-a-year levy to fund the tax cut.

Later, Mr Cameron dismissed Mr Brown's explanation as "nonsense", saying: "Everyone at home will think this guy is just not being straight with him. He must think we are all stupid. Everyone knows that he has not called an election because he thought he might lose it."

How he remembered his lines

A few notes scrawled on a sheet of paper reminded Gordon Brown of his repeated answer to the question which dominated his encounter with the Westminster press corps.

Sixteen words written in the Prime Minister's distinctive fat handwriting served as a prompt as he fielded hostile questions about his decision for more than an hour.

The sheet, captured on television, gave the key words Mr Brown repeated as he was questioned.

It read: "considered election", "could have won", "saw polls". It went on: "first instinct set out vision and delay", "wanted time."

The words "First Instinct" and "Wanted Time" are both clearly circled by Mr Brown and both phrases were often repeated by the Prime Minister throughout the 65-minute session with the press.

The private scrawlings of politicians have provided fodder for the media in the past. At a UN meeting President George W Bush famously passed a note to his then National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice expressing a desire to go to the bathroom. At the Tory party conference, in the wake of David Cameron's bravura 'unscripted' piece, the 4 pages of notes Mr Cameron used as prompts were published and scrutinised. Mr Brown's notes were considerably shorter but given yesterday's fraught circumstances almost as important.

Spurned reporters take their revenge

The Prime Minister suffered the wrath of broadcasters who had lost out when he used an exclusive interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr to announce that he had ruled out a snap autumn election. Gordon Brown faced a barrage of hostile questions as the election that never was dominated his monthly press conference. He abandoned his customary preamble at the start of yesterday's instalment, instead immediately inviting a question from the Sky News political editor, Adam Boulton. Mr Boulton repaid him by asking whether "electoral calculation" dominated his decision.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson challenged the Prime Minister: "Isn't the evidence of the last few days that you listen to people when they agree and you deny them a vote when you think they will vote against you?"

ITV's political editor Tom Bradby added: "Come on, you did more than listen to the idea of an early election. You and your advisers marched us all up to the top of the hill. Surely you changed your mind because you thought you might lose. Why can't you just admit that?"

Irish Independent

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