LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters) Gordon Brown came under the first real pressure of his premiership on Sunday as newspapers, opponents and even allies accused him of stoking election fever only to retreat in the face of collapsing polls.
After weeks of hinting an election was coming, the British prime minister ruled out calling an early vote after opinion polls showed a double-digit lead over his opponents had evaporated in a week.
''Brown bottles it,'' shouted identical front-page headlines in both the left-leaning Independent on Sunday and the right-wing Mail today, using a slang expression for losing one's nerve.
''All mouth and no trousers,'' mocked a headline in the Sunday Times, above a doctored picture of Brown in his underwear, his trousers around his ankles.
Brown, who took over from Tony Blair three months ago, insisted he would have won an election had he decided to call it, but wanted time to carry out his policies first.
''The easiest thing I could have done is call an election. I could have called an election on competence ... We could have won an election now or won an election sooner or later,'' Brown said in an interview with the BBC.
''I believe the country deserves to see from us our vision of the future and our implementation of it.'' Speculation of an early vote had run riot over the past few weeks when polls showed Brown with an 11 percent lead over his Conservative rivals.
The government rescheduled business to make an early vote possible, and Brown fuelled the speculation by refusing for weeks to rule it out. His Labour Party mailed out campaign leaflets.
CONSERVATIVES ENERGISED Brown made a flying visit to Iraq and announced 1,000 troops would come home by Christmas. But the trip backfired after it emerged that half of those cuts had already been announced.
The election buzz seemed to energise the Conservatives, who showed uncharacteristic unity at a party conference and unveiled popular new proposals for tax cuts last week. A poll in the Sunday Times showed the Conservatives three points ahead.
Opponents were scathing. The Conservatives called Brown's reversal a ''humiliating retreat.'' ''He's treating the British people like fools,'' said Conservative leader David Cameron. ''Everybody knows he's not having an election because he's afraid of losing it. And I think treating people like fools is going to go down very badly.'' Government ministers and Labour figures took to the Sunday talk shows to back Brown's decision, but in private they acknowledged he had been hurt.
''He'll take a pasting,'' one government minister told the influential Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley.
''The big, precious thing Gordon had -- his reputation for solidity -- that has been eroded,'' said another cabinet member, who Rawnsley described as ''angry and rather troubled''.
REUTERS JK KN1630