For a man scarred by his calamitous flirtation with a snap election in 2007souring opinion polls forced a humiliating retreatGordon Brown seems surprisingly willing to thrust his fingers back into the fire. Rumours abound that the prime minister,whose well-received handling of the economic crisis has put Labour within touching distance of the Conservatives in the polls (see chart below),will cash in on his comeback by calling an election in 2009. He was previously expected to cling on until the last possible date the following summer. True,Mr Brown is not stoking the speculation as coquettishly as he did last time. But neither is he squashing itgoing only as far as to rule out a ballot in February or March.
The temptations for Mr Brown are obvious. His trustworthiness on economic matters may not survive the job losses and repossessions that seem certain to mount as time passes. Delay also allows the Conservatives to hone their own ideas for dealing with the recession,which have fallen flat so far. On December 28th George Osborne,the shadow chancellor,promised that he would seek to reverse Labours planned increase in national-insurance contributions,due in 2011. Moreover,a vote in 2009 would be hard to portray as a self-interested gambit on Mr Browns part: the last general election was in 2005,and four years has been the standard interval under Labour.
One sign that an early election is more than overheated Westminster gossip is the seniority of those advocating it. In 2007 Mr Brown was goaded on by excitable young advisers. Now the argument is reputedly being advanced by the likes of Lord Mandelson,the business secretary who has the ear of the prime minister. Charlie Whelan,Mr Browns seasoned former press secretary and now a senior trade-union official,has publicly talked up a snap election.
If Mr Brown heeds such advice,June 4th looks the most propitious date for a poll. Local and European elections are already scheduled for that Super Thursday. The spring budget may give Mr Brown a chance to seduce voters further,though there is precious little fiscal scope left for giveaways. And the G20 summit,which will be hosted by Britain in May,is the kind of platform on which the prime minister thrives. Kick-starting a campaign with a photo-opportunity beside Barack Obama may prove a beguiling scenario.
If,on the other hand,the prime minister eventually demurs,it may be because of misplaced confidence as much as his notorious caution. Mr Brown is understood not to regard the political bail-out he has enjoyed as a transient blip that owes everything to the deus ex machina of the banking crisis. Instead,he believes the real aberration was the wretched 12 months he endured between the snap-election fiasco and his recent comeback.
There are other reasons to think that Mr Brown may hold his fire. Labour still lag behind the Conservatives in the polls; it would be unusually risky of him to assume he could reverse that deficit during a brief campaign. He may also have learned from the Tories unexpected triumph in 1992,an election held after the worst of a recession was over. If a recovery has started by the middle of 2010,Mr Brown may be able to poseas he did in his new years message this weekas something approaching a victorious wartime leader.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008