As this blog pointed out on January 8, there are a limited number of dates on which the British Prime Minister can call the inevitable Westminster election. Two of those have now passed without any announcement, which leaves a steadily smaller range of possibilities for the election. We know at this point that it now cannot take place on 4 or 11 February, and it remains highly unlikely that it will take place on 1 April.
As time passes, the probability of the election falling on one of the remaining dates must, of course, increase.
The bookies are, curiously, still offering odds on a January 2010 election – which is entirely impossible now. Odds on a February election are around 33/1 against. March remains the second most popular choice for political betters, with odds of 7/2 against. Only May, with odds of 4/1 in favour, is more popular. Within May, the date of 6 May remains auspicious – in which case the announcement need not be made until 12 April.
However, since the opinion polls are not moving in Labour's favour, Gordon Brown may wish to delay the election as long as possible in the hope of better weather – which brings out more of Labour's traditional voters than bad weather – or a better economic climate, including evidence that Britain has finally emerged from recession. Perhaps Brown is hoping for the combination of two 'feel-good' factors – economic recovery and a sunny day – in order to maximise his chances. Political commentators should be looking at the long-range weather forecast as well as the economic indicators.
Weather is notoriously difficult to forecast, so Brown will have to rely on an analysis of historical weather data – which shows that the longer he waits the better the weather will be.
On the economy, the first estimate of GDP growth/shrinkage is published three-and-a-half weeks after the end of the quarter. Thus, for Q4 of 2009, the first estimate will come out next week, probably on 26 January. If it is finally positive (after over a year of negative GDP growth, i.e. recession) then Brown may be tempted to try to ride the wave by calling an immediate election. It is worth noting that his next deadline for calling the Westminster election is Tuesday 26 January – the same day as the Office for National Statistics will release its first estimate for 2009 Q4 GDP. If this happens, the election will take place on Thursday 18 February. Would Brown risk the effects of poor weather to try to benefit from better economic news?
And if he did, would Northern Ireland's parties be ready?
Brown may, of course, prefer to hedge his bets, by waiting until the next release of the GDP figures, covering the first quarter of 2010. These should be released around 26 April – and that, curiously is exactly Brown's deadline for calling an election on 20 May. If both the 2009 Q4 and the 2010 Q1 GDP figures are positive, Brown can campaign as the Prime Minister who brought Britain out of recession. And if the sun shines, who knows how the election might end up.