UK's Brown refuses to rule out early election

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BOURNEMOUTH, England, Sep 23 (Reuters) Prime Minister Gordon Brown refused today to rule out an early general election after a new opinion poll showed Britain's first bank run in a century had failed to dent his government's popularity.

''I'm not going to give a running commentary,'' Brown said to repeated questioning on whether he would call an election as early as next month when he addresses the annual Labour party conference for the first time as leader tomorrow.

''Whenever the time comes for a decision, I think the issues of course are clear about how we build a stronger economy, how we build for the future a new era for our public services,'' Brown told the BBC as the conference kicked off in the seaside town of Bournemouth.

Sources close to Brown said the new prime minister would only take a decision on an election after the five-day conference. That could still enable him to hold an election as early as October 25.

The 56-year-old Scot, who has revived the party's fortunes since taking over from Tony Blair as prime minister in June, does not have to call a general election until 2010.

But a succession of opinion polls showing the ruling Labour Party with a six- to eight-point lead over the opposition Conservatives has raised speculation he will plumb for an early date.

Party officials have also been cheered that Brown's lead has not been damaged by the Northern Rock crisis. Thousands queued last week to take their cash out of the bank last week after it fell foul of the credit crunch hitting global markets.

Brown laid the blame squarely on global events and gave a ringing endorsement of Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, who has come under fire over the bank run which only ended after the government promised to guarantee all Northern Rock deposits.

''There will always be financial events around the world,'' Brown said. ''The question is: do you have the right system in place to guarantee and ensure the stability of the economy?'' POLL LEAD An ICM poll in the Sunday Mirror showed Labour with a six-point lead and found two thirds of those polled thought Brown was doing a good job as prime minister.

Since taking the top job three months ago, Brown has had to deal with a series of crises from attempted bombings to floods to foot-and-mouth disease.

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said the decision on an election was ''a matter for the prime minister and when he's made his decision he will say what it is.'' ''Obviously a whole range of things need to be taken into consideration,'' she told Sky News.

Arguing against holding an early poll is the fear that if Brown were to lose, he would be one of the shortest serving prime ministers in British history.

But many wonder if the economic outlook is darkening -- interest rates have risen, public spending will be tight and markets are very volatile -- and whether the government may never have it as good as it does now.

Brown has won back Labour supporters, alienated by the Iraq war, by focussing on creating affordable housing, health and education.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been torn by feuding over the party's leadership and direction.

REUTERS SKB KN1638

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