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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January, 2005, 11:34 GMT
When to hold an election
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

If you are having trouble digesting the last cold turkey sandwich of the season, this probably won't help - but a general election is probably just around the corner.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair hopes Iraq will be democratic
It was always a near certainty that 2005 would be election year, and before Christmas there were even suggestions the poll could come as soon as February.

Mind you, that followed hot on the heels of suggestions that Tony Blair was, in fact, planning to wait until June.

And there are even those who believe the prime minister will play it even longer and wait until the autumn before pitching for his third term. He has got until June 2006 after all.

Most political observers and MPs, however, appear still to believe that 5 May 2005 will be the big day and are geeing themselves up for that date.

Four years

Michael Howard is certainly preparing for that date and has already fired the first shot of the campaign by setting out the main themes that will form the heart of his manifesto.

So why is 050505 still the favourite?

It offers itself for a number of reasons while the other dates have some significant downsides.

Michael Howard
Mr Howard is ready for May poll
On 5 May, Tony Blair will have completed nearly four years of his second term - a period which has almost become the traditional time to go.

There will be no serious suggestions it is a cut and run poll, Iraq will have a democratically elected government (he hopes), and Mr Blair's standing will be boosted by his chairmanship of the EU and the G8 nations.

It is the day of the local elections so voters will be out anyway and there should be the first stirrings of spring. Good weather is a factor never to be lightly dismissed.

Recent history also might appear to offer some pointers, although they are notoriously unreliable.

Nightmare rule

In the 16 elections since the Second World War, there have been two in February, one in March and April, three in May, four in June, one in July and four in October.

But any attempt to draw sensible conclusions from the statistics is futile. Each election was held amid inevitably unique circumstances which helped determine the timing.

John Major, for example, held on until the last moment in May 1997 hoping his nightmare rule of the Tory party would be given a boost by an economic upswing. It wasn't.

Sir Edward Heath
Ted Heath asked who governed
And Labour's Jim Callaghan missed the boat by breezily refusing to call a poll in 1978 after appearing to talk it up, only to crash into the winter of discontent and Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Tory Ted Heath met industrial strife head on and called a snap poll in February 1974 asking the nation to decide who governed the country. It turned out not to be him.

None of these are hugely helpful other than to suggest that both snap polls and wait-and-hope elections can backfire badly.

Similarly, the autumn has fallen out of favour of late. Gloomy days, with darker to come, are no help when turnout is important.

Perhaps the best indication is the fact that, of the last six polls, five have been in May or June - now the near-traditional time of the year.

Why wait?

It is just a good time - the sun will be peeking out, voters will not yet have jetted off on holiday, and the government hasn't boxed itself in.

Alan Milburn
Mr Milburn wants poll on his agenda
For Tony Blair to go in February would suggest he was cutting and running before bad economic news.

Certainly, the opinion polls suggest that, despite his problems, he would still easily win an election if it was held tomorrow. So why wait?

Perhaps more persuasive, however, is the argument for waiting until June.

The prime minister could use the May local elections as a combination of sounding board and steam valve.

The results would be the best possible signal of whether he would win a June election or whether there had been a huge swing against him.

Alternatively he may try to use them as a final opportunity for disappointed voters to kick him on the shins before then going on to vote him back into power a month later in the hope the lesson will have been learned.

There are even those who suggest a May poll would end up being fought in the immediate aftermath of Chancellor Gordon Brown's final budget - allowing him to claim credit for victory and boost his leadership ambitions

Wait a month and the rival camp, led by the prime minister and Alan Milburn will be able to move the agenda onto their turf and deny the chancellor that platform.

So there you have it. Absolute proof that the next general election will be held. At some time.




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