by Chris McLaughlin
Labourâ€™s election machine was primed this week for a November 1 poll as Gordon Brown prepared to silence a crescendo of speculation with an announcement on the biggest political gamble of his career.
The timetable for a November 1 general election would require a declaration in time to allow the dissolution of Parliament next Tuesday (October 9), a visit to the Queen and a possible television broadcast to the nation that evening.
As Mr Brown flew back from Iraq â€“ where he was accused by the Tories of election spin by announcing the withdrawal of 1,000 troops by Christmas â€“ close aides were convinced that he had yet to make up his mind whether or not to take the plunge. He will decide this weekend.
Just last weekend, Mr Brown declined appeals by Labour Party chiefs to give them a private go-ahead on the grounds that no â€œfirm and finalâ€ decision had yet been made but ruled out November 8.
The bringing forward of key statements, on health yesterday (October 4) and the comprehensive spending review to Monday, together with a massive internal party mobilisation produced a powerful mix of expectations pressed against Mr Brownâ€™s instinctive caution to hang on.
The prospect of such a speedy poll focused attention on Labourâ€™s winnable seats where MPs had announced that they would stand down at the next election. A number, thought to include Ken Purchase in Wolverhampton North East, Alan Meale in Mansfield and Bruce George in Walsall South, are reconsidering their positions, having expected a longer lead time into retirement.
The large number of constituencies caught without candidates â€“ around 200 â€“ has sparked rumours of a massive â€œparachute missionâ€ of handpicked leadership favourites into the most winnable vacancies, a plan strongly denied by party officials. Amid speculation of a further carefully choreographed wave of defections there were also rumours of plans to drop former Tories, such as Quentin Davies, into safe seats.
John Bercow, the Tory MP for Buckingham who has been toying with defection for some time, is said to be among the parachute volunteers.
In safe seats, those where an MP is retiring and those that party considers winnable, the national executive will impose shortlists with the candidate to be chosen by an all-member constituency meeting.
Any sign of parachuting favourites would cause uproar among party activists and the unions, whose senior officers include a number willing to answer the call at short noticed if their services were needed.
In the marginals, where the Tories have targeted funds through party financier Michael Ashcroft, internal Labour polling shows its lead down on the national lead but holding around 5 per cent, though the lead is â€œchoppierâ€ in the south of England.