Balls: Conference for setting policy, not election date

This week’s Labour conference will be about setting out the election terrain not timing, one of Gordon Brown’s closest confidantes said last night.

Speaking at a fringe event, Ed Balls said the prime minister would use this week to set out his new vision and establish a clear difference between Labour and the Conservatives.

But he said at some point it would be proper to put any new programme to a public vote to hand the prime minister a clear mandate.

Election speculation is threatening to overshadow policy at this week’s Labour conference in Bournemouth, leading many to argue Mr Brown should either set a date or firmly rule out an autumn election.

It appears likely, however, Mr Brown will not use this afternoon’s leader’s speech to announce an election, leaving open the possibility he could call a poll at the end of the week or during next week’s Conservative conference.

Speaking at a Fabian question and answer session last night, Mr Balls heightened speculation by saying this year’s Labour conference reminded him of 1996 – the final election before Labour’s landslide election victory.

In both years, the party is firmly united around their leader, the Conservatives are in disarray and the public are offered a real choice between a Tory and Labour government.

With poll ratings pointing to an autumn election, Mr Balls said David Cameron’s “bluff” had failed.

Mr Brown’s “coronation” as Labour leader swiftly saw the Conservatives and right-wing media clamouring for Mr Brown to call a mandate-earning election.

The Conservatives had underestimated the new prime minister, Mr Balls said, and were now facing the prospect of losing an early election they had demanded.

Mr Brown has performed well as leader, his schools and children secretary asserted, and Labour is in a strong position across the board.

By contrast, he said the Conservative party is in turmoil.

Next week’s Conservative conference will be a debate about their next leader, not policies, he argued, with Mr Cameron increasingly looking like another transitional figurehead.

Mr Balls said Mr Cameron had failed to face up to the test Tony Blair passed in the 1990s; debating with his party and forcing it to modernise.