Flash Gordon woos Fife voters in attempt to fend off SNP

Labour capitalises on PM's return to favour to keep Glenrothes from nationalists
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He has been transformed from Just Gordon to Flash Gordon, lecturing the nations of the world on how to run their economies – even fitting in advice to the BBC on how to handle the Ross-Brand debacle. On Thursday he may reinvent himself again, as the new Comeback Kid.

Last week, in a social club not far from his Fife home, the normally reticent Prime Minister was engaged in one of the biggest speed dates of his political career. Under the low ceiling of the Bowhill War Memorial Hall, Cardenden, last Friday, Mr Brown worked a room, moving between eight tables of "undecided voters", hand-picked by local activists.

He shifted to another table every five minutes, prompted with clockwork efficiency by eager officials, sharing the workload with the Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy, and Lindsay Roy. Mr Roy, as Labour's candidate in the Glenrothes by-election, should have been the centre of attention. But there was only one star attraction.

After nearly an hour of sober nodding as he was presented with concerns ranging from anti-social behaviour to bus routes, Mr Brown emerged on the edge of the dance floor to sum up proceedings. Regardless of how undecided his audience had been when they entered the hall, most left vowing to vote Labour this Thursday.

The famously dour Prime Minister even managed a few jokes – notably about how the sole visitor to his first constituency surgery at a nearby building in 1983 was someone who introduced himself as "the man who punched [the late Fife Central MP] Willie Hamilton". The aggressive constituent subsequently challenged the young Mr Brown to a boxing match. "It didn't happen," the Prime Minister confirmed, coyly.

Mr Brown's apparent appetite for political fisticuffs represents a remarkable turnaround for a man who only weeks ago appeared to be heading for the twilight of a short-lived and disastrous term in office. The depth of his unpopularity was laid bare last July when Labour lost one of its safest seats, Glasgow East, to the Scottish National Party in a by-election.

The Glenrothes by-election, forced by the death of former MP John MacDougall in August, was to be the next station on the Prime Minister's road to oblivion. At one point, the SNP was quoted as 1-4 favourites to overturn a 10,664 majority in a seat neighbouring Mr Brown's own. Yet last night a poll gave Labour a 3.5 per cent lead over the SNP. The Scottish Sunday Express survey put Labour on 26.5 per cent and the Nationalists on 23 per cent. An identical poll by the paper six weeks ago gave the SNP a 13-point lead.

The transformation owes much to Mr Brown's perceived calm in the face of the global meltdown. It has also been assisted by a homespun campaign. Mr Roy's "action plan for Fife", set out on a poster resembling a blackboard – a less than subtle nod to the candidate's job as headteacher at the PM's old school, Kirkcaldy High – targets local issues including anti-social behaviour, roads and buses. But Labour also believes there is much to be gained from negative campaigning on the ruling SNP executive's plans to introduce a local income tax and the local SNP council's increased charges for home help for the disabled.

The nationalists' counteroffensive focuses on Westminster policies, including energy bills and the bank bail-out's impact on Scotland.

Fellow Fifer and the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish said victory would confirm the Prime Minister is in the midst of a political recovery – a Clintonesque Comeback Kid; defeat would almost certainly kill Mr Brown's recent bounce.

"I think we have reached a point where the leader is no longer an anchor weighing the Labour Party down," observed John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. "But I am not yet convinced he is an eagle capable of taking them to new heights."