British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised a new drive to transform the health service and schools on Monday, but again failed to stamp out speculation he may call an early general election.
He was to lay out his plans for “a fairer, stronger Britain” in his first speech as leader to the ruling Labour Party’s annual conference later on Monday.
The five-day conference in the seaside resort of Bournemouth has been hit by a bout of election fever as Brown’s wide lead in the opinion polls fuels talk that he could call a snap election, perhaps as soon as October — about three years early.
Brown, who replaced Tony Blair as prime minister three months ago, said he was focusing on his job but dodged the question when asked in broadcast interviews if he would rule out an election this year.
“I’ve got a programme for change for the future. Do I need to call an election to do so? No … The right thing to do of course is to get on with the job,” he told BBC radio. “I can make these decisions. There will be a time to do that, but I’m getting on with the job at the moment.”
Brown is expected to give little away about the timing of an election in his conference speech. Sources close to him have said he will wait until after the conference before deciding.
Brown does not have to call a general election until 2010, but his early popularity has led some in his party to believe that he should grasp the opportunity now to seek an unprecedented fourth consecutive term for Labour.
An Ipsos-Mori poll in the Sun newspaper on Monday gave Labour an eight-percentage-point lead over the opposition Conservatives, who have been beset by divisions over policies and sniping over David Cameron’s leadership.
Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock told the BBC Brown could be confident of winning an election, but was unlikely to call one now.
The prime minister’s popularity does not appear to have been dented by a recent banking scare.
Brown said his conference speech would lay out Labour’s plans to improve public services — a major concern of voters. He has singled out other key challenges for the next decade: globalisation, security and terrorism, changing demographics (including immigration), climate change and social breakdown.
Labour ministers say Brown’s early success has exceeded their expectations and that the party was ready for an election whenever he called one.
Labour lagged the Conservatives in Blair’s final year in office amid voter anger over the Iraq war and disillusionment with what many regarded as a government “culture of spin”.
Brown has stamped his authority on the government, dealing firmly with crises ranging from attempted bombings to floods and foot-and-mouth disease in livestock. — Reuters
Additional reporting by Kate Kelland