Brown rules out early UK vote as his lead vanishes

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LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Gordon Brown ruled out an early election in what the opposition Conservatives called a humiliating retreat after polls showed his lead over them had evaporated.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair three months ago, had allowed his Labour Party to fan speculation in recent weeks that he would hold an early election when opinion polls showed Labour far ahead of its Conservative opponents.

Polls had given Brown a lead of up to 11 points after he had to deal with floods, a terrorism scare and outbreaks of livestock disease. However, his lead vanished abruptly last week when the Conservatives rallied in response to election speculation.

Early editions of today's News of the World newspaper, available late yesterday, published polls from battleground constituencies showing Brown would lose his majority in parliament if a vote were held now.

Another survey conducted for the Sunday Times by YouGov gave the Conservatives a three-point lead over Labour -- 41 per cent to 38 per cent -- with Liberal Democrats on 11 per cent.

''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 told the BBC.

He denied he was afraid of losing. ''We would win an election in my view whether we had it this week, next week or later.'' ''SHAMBOLIC PERFORMANCE'' Opponents were scathing. Conservative leader David Cameron spoke of an ''absolutely shambolic performance'' by Brown.

''The prime minister has shown great weakness and indecision,'' Cameron said. ''It's quite clear he has not been focused on running the country these past weeks. He has been focused on trying to spin his way into a general election. And now he's forced to make a humiliating retreat.'' Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: ''There's no doubt that people will see this as being a loss of nerve on the part of the prime minister.'' Cameron had challenged Brown to call the vote even when the Conservatives were trailing far behind.

After Brown allowed a conference of his Labour Party to be dominated by election talk last month, the Conservatives held their own party conference last week and polls showed Brown's lead suddenly dwindling or even evaporating altogether.

The frequently-divided Conservatives made a show of unity at their conference and unveiled new proposals for tax cuts.

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. The Conservatives denounced the trip as a publicity stunt.

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 TB AS0432

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