Gordon Brown: A philosophical man down on his luck and running out of time

With an election looming and the economy slumping, the Prime Minister has reason to fear the verdict of voters. But this won't distract him, he tells Andrew Grice

The G20 circus has left town, and Gordon Brown looks tired – almost exhausted. But to the chagrin of his equally fatigued advisers, the Downing Street workload has not lessened since the frenetic run-up to last Thursday's summit between the leaders of the world's richest countries in London.

Mr Brown knows the voters will notice his Chancellor's Budget on 22 April much more than a summit that has already faded into history – and he is working overtime to convince the public that the world leaders' decisions at the G20 will make a difference at home.

Beyond that, he also knows he has little over a year before the ultimate test of an election which can be delayed no longer, amid the worst economic outlook since the 1930s and polls which suggest Labour is badly trailing the Conservatives.

Interviewed yesterday in the Thatcher Room, his study in No 10, he is still fizzing with new ideas for his domestic agenda, even though he may not have the money to pay for them. Mr Brown is adamant that what is good for the global economy is good for Britain. By the same token, he argued, the pace of any recovery here will depend in part on what happens abroad.

The Prime Minister is doomed to walk a tightrope: he is desperate to project a positive vision for the new "low carbon" British economy that will emerge from the recession.

Yet he cannot prophesise when recovery will come, despite some tentative signs of hope in the housing market and service industries. Two of his own ministers, Baroness Vadera and Vera Baird, have already been shot down for talking up "green shoots".

"Nobody is going to get into the business of forecasts or projections," Mr Brown declared. "A lot depends on what happens internationally – if the monetary and fiscal stimulus can multiply and magnify, if there is international co-operation over the next few months."

He denied being disappointed that the G20 meeting did not give him the cover for a big further fiscal stimulus in the forthcoming Budget, insisting there might be some limited room for manoeuvre. He pointed out that Meryvn King, the Bank of England Governor, had approved targeted fiscal action even while ruling out another big boost like the £20bn allocated in last November's pre-Budget report.

Was his meeting with Mr King on Monday to discuss follow-up to the G20 summit a friendly one? "Absolutely," he smiled.

Mr Brown is trying to recreate the successful mix of decisiveness, long-term strategy and domination of the political agenda which allowed him to bounce back in the opinion polls when he rescued the banks last autumn. That momentum was lost in the new year, when a blizzard of government initiatives was eclipsed by the daily dose of job losses and grim economic forecasts.

The mix returned at the G20. Mr Brown now wants to maintain it with the Budget. But it will not be easy; even his own ministers admit privately that "there is no money in the kitty".

Some will be found to help the jobless back into work. "What brought me into politics was that I saw the waste of unemployment and importance of tackling it as quickly as possible, so we don't allow a large number of people to become unemployed." His mantra, he said, is "the opposite" to that of the former Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, who declared that unemployment is a price worth paying.

Advisers want Mr Brown not to be sucked into day-to-day political combat as he focuses relentlessly on the recession, but he has inevitably been dragged into the deepening controversy over MPs' expenses. He conceded that the row is damaging the standing of politics generally and said he wanted to enact proposals from the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life "as quickly as possible".

Mr Brown said: "This can't be sorted out by one or two MPs talking to themselves. It has got to command broad public support. The rules have got to be sufficiently clear for everything that happens to be acceptable to the public. MPs have a duty to satisfy the public that public money is being spent well. I don't shirk from that responsibility."

What is his answer to David Cameron's proposal that ministers – himself included – who enjoy "grace and favour" homes should not draw the MPs' second homes allowance. (Mr Brown claimed £17,073 for his Fife constituency house in 2007-08.) The Prime Minister insisted he had always abided by the rules and would do so if they changed.

But he believed that the Tory leader did not understand the full position: he does incur costs at Downing Street – which is not "free" because, for example, he pays council tax on it. Despite his often-repeated concern about job losses, the economic crisis may have a silver lining. A year ago, Mr Brown said, no one would have thought it possible for the world to share a "new consensus" over banking regulation, tax havens, a fiscal stimulus and reform of bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.

"The world is changing very fast," he said. "We have got to make sure that Britain – which I believe in passionately – is equipped for these challenges of the future. That is my main point of action and concern."

Rehearsing his election lines against the Conservatives, Mr Brown insisted that the end of the free-market consensus – and need for greater regulation– could yet help Labour to neutralise the "time for change" factor that would normally play strongly for Mr Cameron.

"This is going to be a progressive decade. I think people do understand that some of the problems we had can only be solved, first of all, by governments working together with other governments, nations co-operating with nations. There is a new internationalism, a new strategic role for countries working together to solve common problems.

"There is a recognition that if we don't invest in the future – in areas such as education and the environment – we will not have the future people want to see. Those countries that invest in the future will be the successful countries of the future. Those who simply want to cut public spending, rein back on investment, be isolated in Europe, will not meet the progressive challenges of our times."

At their joint press conference last week, President Barack Obama, paying a glowing tribute to Mr Brown's leadership ahead of the G20 summit, gave him this friendly advice: "Over time, good policy is good politics." What did Mr Brown make of that? "It is what we are trying," he said.

Yet time is a precious commodity in politics and Mr Brown does not have much left as electoral clock ticks towards June 2010, by when he must call a general election. Mr Brown does not waste time looking at the calendar – yet. "The only matters that I wake up in the morning thinking about is how we get through this [recession] and build a better future," he said. "If I were to start thinking about all sorts of other things, it would be a mistake. I have to get on with the job."

Finally, does he ever fear, as some of those close to him do, that he will not reap any personal electoral benefit for his Herculean labours? "That is up to the voters," he said. "I will keep doing what is the right thing."