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Politics of the media: elections

Leopards can't change their spots, or so her majesty's media are currently reminding themselves.

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Rather crossly as it happens, because many of them had persuaded themselves that Gordon Brown could. And he hasn't.

Brown's reaction to David Cameron's surge in the polls following the "inheritance tax" Tory conference was predictable. He cancelled the election that he probably never really wanted to risk in the first place.

But he did it in such a ham-fisted way that he made the hacks feel foolish and they're currently taking their revenge.

Error number one, which predated the Tory conference, was to allow his minions, particularly Ed Balls (suspect in most hacks' eyes because he used to work for the FT) to talk up the likelihood of an election.

Error number two was to bring forward a visit to Iraq to try to steal Cameron's conference thunder and compound this with a typical bit of Brown double counting about troop withdrawals.

Error number three was to announce there would no election in an "exclusive" private confab with the BBC's Andrew Marr, rather than owning up on the steps of Number 10 to the world at large.

Error number four was to maintain this had nothing to do with the opinion polls.

Error number five was to send out some of his least convincing minions, Ed Miliband and Hazel Blears, to say the whole farrago had been got up by the press. This was his biggest mistake (in a pretty strong field, admittedly).

As I write this, he'll be defending his position to a hand-picked bunch of hacks at his monthly press conference in Downing Street but the damage has been done.

Even the usually affable "posh" Ed Stourton on the 'Today' programme this morning (Monday) gave Justice Secretary Jack Straw, by far and away the government's most skilful dissembler (remember how he ground even John Humphrys into exasperated silence with his disquisitions about various UN resolutions on Iraq), a proper roasting.

Straw, who came on full of fake bonhomie, was reduced to addressing Ed as "Mr Stourton" in what he obviously thought was a headmasterly tone of voice. "Why don't you just tell the truth", said Ed.

Journalists know full well that politicians will say something unattributably and then change their minds. That's the game.

But you can't lead the whole of the media up the garden path by the nose and then say it's all their fault for making it up or (even worse perhaps) being credulous.

So what's this got to do with leopards and spots? Brown has never been able to admit he's wrong and the upshot of this is that you can end up telling lies.

The slippery Tony Blair was much better at handling this (although he may still be convicted of telling the ultimate whopper, over when he decided to go to war in Iraq).

For the most part, he was a good enough lawyer to choose his words with extreme care and, when that didn't wash, fall back on the assertion that "it was the right thing to do". Even if it demonstrably wasn't.

But plain-talking (so we're led to believe), Churchillian Brown leaves himself no such wriggle room.

Will Cameron accuse him of lying at PM's Questions on Wednesday? That's a big thing to do, he may leave it to the press.

But Brown has well and truly lost the media by fibbing about what he intended to do. And then blaming them.

Everyone knows that only an idiot would go to the country when his party might be behind in the polls. Sure, it would have been embarrassing to own up to this but Brown is smart enough to have found some sort of gloss to put on it.

As it is, he's created a kind of mini Black Wednesday (the economic crisis of 1992 that did for the Tories) out of absolutely nothing but his own desire to have it both ways.

Oh dear.

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