LONDON, Oct 6 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Gordon Brown ended weeks of speculation today and ruled out an early election in what his opponents called a loss of nerve after polls showed his lead over rivals had vanished.
Brown, who took over from Tony Blair earlier this year, had in recent weeks toyed with the idea of holding an early election when opinion polls showed him far ahead of his Conservative opponents after his ruling Labour Party held a conference.
That lead evaporated in the past week. The News of the World newspaper announced it would publish polls from battleground districts tomorrow that would show Brown would lose his majority in parliament if a vote were held now.
''I'll not be calling an election and let me explain why. I have a vision for change in Britain and I want to show people how in government we are implementing it,'' Brown said in a short excerpt from an interview aired by the BBC.
BBC journalist Andrew Marr, who conducted the interview, said Brown told him he considered holding an early vote and understood that the apparent indecision would hurt him politically in the short run.
Opponents were scathing.
''There's no doubt that people will see this as being a loss of nerve on the part of the prime minister,'' said Menzies Campbell, leader of the third party, the Liberal Democrats.
''This was a charade really over the last three or four weeks,'' he said. ''I think he and others around him will look back over what happened the past few weeks and accept that this has been grossly mishandled.'' Conservative commentator Michael Portillo said: ''I'm afraid his reputation for competence is a thing of the past ... He was riding on a complete high with the media. He was walking on water. And now he's sunk.'' The decision to back down clearly marked a victory for Conservative leader David Cameron, who had challenged Brown to call the vote even when he was trailing far behind.
The Conservatives held their own party conference last week and polls in the past few days showed Brown's lead had suddenly dwindled or even evaporated altogether.
Under British parliamentary rules, Brown must call an election by 2010, but he can hold it earlier to seek a fresh five-year mandate if he chooses.
That had seemed to be the likely outcome when Labour was far ahead, and Brown added to election fever with a flying visit to Iraq last week and by moving his government's pre-budget report forward to the beginning of next week.
In Iraq, Brown said he was bringing 1,000 troops home before Christmas. But that backfired after it emerged that half of those troop reductions had already been announced, and the Conservatives denounced the trip as a publicity stunt.
These events appeared to give the Conservatives ammunition for their criticism of Brown as an over cautious politician who agonises over decisions.
Strathclyde University politics Professor John Curtice said allowing election speculation to run riot was the first serious mistake of Brown's premiership.
''It raises questions certainly about the people around him,'' he said.
Were Brown to have held the election early and lost, he would have been the shortest-serving prime minister in British history not to have died in office.
REUTERS PY RK2245