Gordon Brown slapped down his rivals both inside and outside the Labour Party yesterday in a fighting conference speech which bought him more time as Prime Minister.
Mr Brown portrayed himself as "the rock of stability and fairness" Britain needed during the financial crisis. "This is no time for a novice," he declared. That was a rebuke for both David Cameron and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and the front-runner to succeed Mr Brown if he is forced out. But ministers warned that the reaction from the voters will decide whether or not he leads Labour into the next general election. In public, they heaped praise on the speech but privately they made clear that he could still face a cabinet mutiny if his fightback fails to impress the public.
One said: "This will do him some good in the short term, but the long term will depend on the public. I hope there was enough in it for them, and they don't see it as tailored for the party."
Friends and foes alike will now be anxiously awaiting the next crop of opinion polls to see whether voters will join Labour in giving Mr Brown a second chance. In a sign of how high the personal stakes are for the Prime Minister his wife Sarah – who has never spoken on a party platform before – chose to introduce him to the conference just two hours before the speech.
John Hutton, the Business Secretary, said: "It was a very good performance. We all want to see our opinion poll ratings improve and see the popularity of the Government improve."
The Cabinet is unlikely to move against Mr Brown while the crisis continues in financial markets. But there are growing signs that ministers will act if Labour does badly in the European and local elections next June.
In a highly personal, hour-long speech to the Manchester conference, the Prime Minister warned the rebel MPs calling for a Labour leadership election not to rock the boat after a week in which "the world was spun on its axis" by the financial turmoil.
"The British people would not forgive us if at this time we looked inwards to the affairs just of our party when our duty is to the interests of our whole country," he said.
His main theme was a promise of "a new settlement for new times" based on "a fair society". He argued that Labour's values, and a belief in state intervention to correct market failures, were the right ones during economic uncertainty. He wants to use this as a key dividing line with the Conservative Party, and said: "Those who don't believe in the potential of government shouldn't be trusted to form one."
Mr Brown announced that 250,000 people suffering from cancer would benefit from free prescriptions. He said Labour's pledge to abolish child poverty by 2020 would be enshrined by legislation – a move that would lock in any future Tory Government. He also promised to make social care affordable and a right to "personal catch-up tuition" for primary school children.
Mr Brown won an ecstatic response from Labour delegates, who warmed to his personal style. Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, said: "It is a speech that will buy the Prime Minister a three-month reprieve. Within this time, either the policies have to change or the leadership will."Reuse content