Opinion: Telegraph makes election date a mystery

Ask any US president what he likes most about the British political system and he will undoubtedly say that it's the ability of the prime minister to decide the election date. The advantage in deciding when an election is called is huge - but all that advantage is lost if the date is thought to be fixed.

When Cherie Blair blurted out last month that her diary was full until May and empty thereafter, one Downing Street aide snarled it was the PM's wife's brain that was empty. The last thing Labour election strategists wanted was confirmation of the May date, so it was only a matter of time before stories appeared naming a later or earlier time.

Last week, The Sunday Telegraph political editor Paddy Hennessy predicted that the referendum on the European constitution would be in March 2006.

He may have made up the month, but Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed the year. Who better then to start speculation rolling on the general election date than my old mate Paddy?

The Sunday Telegraph 'splash' that Alan Milburn was gearing up for a February poll was followed up by every media outlet. I don't think I've seen Milburn with a bigger smile on his face for some time. The report may have been rubbish, but the Tories don't know that for sure and neither do Labour's grumpy backbenchers, who will now think twice about attacking their leader so close to what could be the election.

It is worth noting that if Alastair Campbell was still around, no one would have given the story a second glance, assuming it to be spin.

Hennessy has a record for getting things right, but because he has no links to Campbell the story had legs. Close examination of the yarn shows it came from sources close to the election campaign. The revelation that Chancellor Gordon Brown's aides are now invited to Milburn's strategy meetings was buried away.

This could be a clue to who was responsible for the plant. I don't think Milburn has the brains to have come up with the idea himself; more likely it came from someone like Ed Miliband, a Brown aide who has not only worked on two British elections and a Scottish election but is one of the few current Labour people to have worked with John Kerry in America.

I have no doubt that the election will be in May and not February, but will everyone then be going on about how wrong the Sunday Telegraph story was? Of course not. Hennessy will say what hacks always say: 'The story was right at the time but Blair changed his mind.' And who are we to know if that's right or wrong?

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