Gordon Brown bolstered his position yesterday by unveiling a list of policy announcements aimed at securing Labour a fourth term by winning back voters in Middle England who have deserted the party.
In a fighting speech to the Labour conference, the Prime Minister positioned Labour as the party of the "mainstream majority" and the "squeezed middle" against a Conservative Party which he claimed stood for the "privileged few".
In a response to the MPs' expenses scandal, he promised a landmark referendum on scrapping Britain's first-past-the-post system soon after the general election. He announced a personal U-turn by coming out in favour of the alternative vote (AV) system, used in Australia, in which people rank candidates in order of preference. The bottom one drops out, with second preferences redistributed until one candidate enjoys more than 50 per cent support. Although not a proportional system, it would be an historic change if introduced in Britain.
He also announced that voters would be allowed to trigger a by-election when an MP is guilty of gross financial misconduct or corruption. A certain proportion of voters would have to demand such a "recall ballot" in a petition.
There was a surprise ambitious promise to provide free care at home for 350,000 elderly people at a cost of £400m; a pledge to maintain the schools budget and child benefit and to enshrine into law Labour's commitments to raise spending on overseas aid. But there were few examples of the spending cuts needed to pay for them.
Mr Brown embraced the Blairite agenda on antisocial behaviour by announcing that 16- and 17-year-old mothers would be placed in a supervised hostel rather than a council flat; "tough love" for Britain's 500,000 problem families, he said. Councils would also be given the power to ban 24-hour drinking throughout their area and neighbourhood police would begin intensive action against bad behaviour in the next few months.
The policy-rich, hour-long speech was designed to convince voters that Labour has not run out of steam after 12 years in power. It delighted Labour delegates and silenced the speculation that he could be ousted before the general election – for now. However, some ministers believe the question will resurface in December if Labour fails to close the Tories' big opinion poll lead by then.
In effect, Mr Brown fired the starting gun for a long election campaign likely to last until next April or May by repeatedly mapping out the choice between Labour and the Tories. Insisting that he came from "an ordinary family in an ordinary town", he did not mention David Cameron by name but implied that he did not. He admitted some flaws and mistakes but his message was that if the voters decided to reject him and take a chance on the Tories, that would not be "without consequence". "The election to come will not be about my future – it's about your future," he said. "Your job. Your home. Your children's school. Your hospital. Your community. It is about the future of your country."
Drawing what he hopes will be the crucial election dividing line, Mr Brown said: "There are only two options on tax and spending – and only one of them benefits Britain's hard-working majority. One is reducing the deficit by cutting frontline services – and that is the Conservative approach. The other is getting the deficit down while maintaining and indeed improving frontline public services – the Labour approach."
Warning that Conservative plans to cut inheritance tax would leave even less for frontline services, he said: "These are not cuts they [the Tories] would make because they have to – these are spending cuts they are making because they want to. It is not inevitable – it is the change they choose."
The Prime Minister also rehearsed his election lines by claiming the Tories "got the economic call of the century" wrong in the past year. The crisis had discredited their pro-market philosophy, he argued.
He questioned Mr Cameron's claim to have changed his party, arguing that he could not deliver change for the country.
His crackdown on antisocial behaviour drew wry smiles from some Blairites, who recalled that as Chancellor he often opposed Tony Blair's measures to combat it. One former cabinet minister said: "This is a very late conversion. He obstructed Tony at every turn. He wouldn't give the Home Office the money for it. He wanted us to keep quiet about crime, saying that talking about it would increase people's fear of it."
Missing from the speech was a formal announcement that Mr Brown would take part in a series of televised debates with Mr Cameron and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg – the first at a British election. The Prime Minister is expected to agree but is believed to have decided not to announce it yesterday as it would have overshadowed his policy commitments.
Some ministers are urging Mr Brown to declare his hand and Mr Cameron said: "I cannot believe that the Prime Minister is still sitting on the fence. I can't work out this morning whether he's dithering or bottling, I expect it's a combination of both. But come on Gordon, get off the fence, agree to the debate, bring it on."
Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman, said: "This was a speech with no vision and no argument – just a long shopping list with no price tag. Gordon Brown continues to treat people like fools. He didn't acknowledge the mistakes he has made or that his Government has run out of money.
"He talked about change and a new age, but this speech was full of the same old political attacks and was firmly stuck in the past."
The Independent's expert panel gives its view
Former Labour Director of Communications
Gordon Brown's speech showed that, in policy terms, New Labour still understands where the centre of political gravity is in this country. My reservation is that he still hasn't found the language to reach out beyond the party, who loved the speech, to people at home to persuade them to look at him afresh and the party afresh.
Body language specialist
There was real pace of movement. It was a high-energy performance that said, "I'm up for the fight." It was also the most natural smiling I have seen him do, as he threw in some genuine humour. But I did not like the fact that Sarah came on at the start. It may not do him damage, but in the long run he has got to be able to look like he is standing on his own two feet. He must not look like he is hiding behind Sarah's skirt, or Peter Mandelson's trouser-leg.
Sarah's introduction was brilliant and Gordon started well. He looked powerful, confident and energetic and did not seem like a man down and finished. For me it was great to hear him supporting Harriet Harman early on and back her Equality Bill. But at times, his claims, such as tackling cancer, seemed over the top, and on issues such as pensions and free childcare, the trust question remained. I was left thinking, why haven't these things happened already?
Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University
The Prime Minister aimed for the right targets – to remind voters of Labour's past achievements, to suggest he is on the side of the "mainstream majority", and, above all, to give an idea of the better future he hopes to deliver. But it is not clear the whole was more than the sum of the headline grabbing parts, voters may still be unclear about the shape of the fairer, more responsible Britain Mr Brown says he wants.
Despite a typically tough, barnstorming flurry of policy presentation, the Brown brand hasn't really moved on. His reputation of "all substance and no style" has been borne true with this speech. And whilst the speech contains plenty of substance, it's questionable if the voting public will buy the brand next year. It's sadly too little, too late. And there's a danger that he could re-write his legacy as "not enough substance, with definitely no style".
Former speechwriter to Paddy Ashdown
The speech started well and was brilliantly set up by Sarah Brown. It certainly did play well in the hall, not least the anger and passion shown. The economy message would have been stronger if it had been more personalised to what people are experiencing. There were some new policies – but did they weave a clear theme? The key question is: was it powerful enough? Was it personal enough to give Labour a chance to get the choice message across?
Chief Executive of ComRes polling
Having made a strong start, the rest of his speech lacked spark and impact. But at least we know the campaign narrative: this election is different because of the new economic climate. Labour will say the Conservatives cannot be trusted on the economy because they have too much faith in the markets and showed poor judgement in their response to the financial crisis. This is a powerful argument because it exposes the Conservatives' weakest flank. Will it be enough to turn around the poll ratings? No, especially if David Cameron gets a bounce of his own next week.
Mainstream majority: 5
Privileged few: 3
Our choice: 4
I [Gordon Brown]: 51
Tony Blair: 1