Labour conference: Go back to your constituencies and prepare for what, exactly?

He might well look pleased with himself. Gordon Brown's first Labour Party conference as leader was seriously successful. It certainly ticked all his boxes. But, dear oh dear, it was dull. And we still don't have an election date. Brian Brady reports
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It took her 90 minutes, but, after simpering and cooing over Gordon Brown for what seemed an eternity, Mariella Frostrup finally managed to ask the one question everybody wanted him to answer.

This close family friend had allowed him to rehearse familiar details about his church background and its impact on his political beliefs in a stagey question-and-answer session at the Labour conference. But she finally, apologetically, nailed him on the date of the next election just as he was ready to leave the stage.

"Charming though you are," Brown replied, "I shall have to mention it to the Queen first."

It was as lively as the Prime Minister got during his entire week in the sun, and the closest anyone got to an indication of when he will go to the polls, and what he will then offer the nation.

In the meantime, in the Bournemouth International Centre, the Labour faithful were given several stern lectures by their resolute leader. Anyone who had expected a celebration of his long-delayed ascension to Labour's throne instead got a run-down of the trials they – or, the sub-text roared, the Government – have faced down in the short months since he came to power.

Terror plots, floods and foot and mouth. This was no one's idea of a party. He did, at least, spare them the terrible spectre of Northern Rock. The only bum note came during a mawkish passage about Brown the New Man, who strives to "get the kids to school with their homework done, make sure no one forgets their PE kit or a school play rehearsal"; the TV cameras caught his wife Sarah, otherwise immaculately behaved throughout the week, stony-faced. That spoke volumes.

There were, Labour Party officials contentedly confirmed last week, some 4,000 delegates nodding and flinching amid the barrage delivered by their new leader on Monday afternoon.

But within the Brown camp, only two mattered. Bob Shrum, an American political consultant, had been hauled into furious pre-conference preparations to help craft a speech to soften the British public, should Brown opt for an early general election. And Brown's pollster Deborah Mattison was there to decide whether the "I will not let you down" appeal had worked. The verdict, it appears, is that it most probably had – but that is no guarantee that this most cautious of politicians will take the plunge before the Tories meet in Blackpool this week.

It is a measure of his modest ambitions that Brown had exactly the conference week he wanted. He wanted to sit on potential dissenters, he wanted to batter his followers and potential supporters with evidence of his mechanical efficiency, and above all he wanted to emerge from the week with a greater chance of victory at an election any time soon.

It was his long-ago predecessor Lord Kinnock who last week framed the Labour intention as to "grind the [Tory] bastards into dust"; Brown appears intent on beating the electorate into submission as well. He duly finished the week with an 11-point lead in one opinion poll and insistent rumours that more Tories are poised to defect to Labour.

The operation did not make for an entertaining spectacle, however. Brown's team complained behind their hands about the hours they had been forced to put in on the speech, and subsequently his dutiful "charm offensive" at a punishing series of events throughout the conference week.

The Brown approach is almost consciously at odds with the previous leader's messianic relationship with his party. Where Brown's oratory is pedestrian compared with Tony Blair's, he also falls short on charisma.

"When Tony used to come into rooms, you could feel the electricity," a former Blairite staffer mumbled at one reception as the PM was ushered around the guests. "You don't get that with Gordon. But you know when he's around."

Nevertheless, Brown cemented his improving links with Labour's traditional enemies in the right-wing press by becoming the first Labour leader in a decade to turn up at the Telegraph party. His recent glad-handing of notables, including Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis, appears to have borne fruit; Lewis was later involved in an angry exchange with a rival commentator who lampooned his enthusiastic welcome for Brown's speech. Lewis, and his readers, might bitterly oppose Brown's refusal to hold a referendum on the EU "constitution", but he has been mightily impressed by Brown's ability to handle the rest of his brief.

Certainly, few others managed to enhance their reputations last week. Brown's team was sent to Bournemouth well drilled and banned from attempting the flurry of crowd-pleasing announcements that get their names in the papers. Moreover, they were ordered to restrict their speeches to a puny seven minutes – the Chancellor Alistair Darling's massive overrun was largely explained by his attempts to explain the Northern Rock debacle.

Even those blessed with prominent roles struggled to impress, none more than David Miliband, the boy-man Blairite who was formerly Brown's most likely challenger. As Foreign Secretary, he has undergone a dramatic transition, but, as he proved on Tuesday, this has not produced a credible statesman. Miliband's earnest expression and solemn delivery drew winces, and, for the first time, sparked doubts over the young genius's grasp of the dark arts of politics.

Worse, he faced an attack from his young brother, Cabinet Office minister Ed, who complained that David had scored more points in Sky News's mock card game, Top Trumps. "Not only do I lose in relation to parliamentary skills and charisma," Ed complained, "but also in relation to looks. So I am outraged."

At least the older Miliband appeared a little more human than Brown protégé Douglas Alexander, who opened up with a real tub-thumper: "It is with humility and pride that I speak to you for the first time as Labour's International Development Secretary."

It may be a sign of Brown's shrewdness that Wee Dougie, as his elections mastermind, will be shut away from public view for some weeks to come.

A few ministers did manage to rise above the downbeat mood and the restrictions placed upon them to impress those who bothered to stick around to hear them.

The Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, despite unease over his boggle-eyed delivery, drew hearty applause with an old-fashioned assault on the Tories. It was the only significant attack on the opposition during the entire week.

But it would be wrong to suggest that a mere change of leadership has washed away all the party's longstanding internal problems, notably the Blair-Brown rivalry that drove the agenda at conferences for 13 years.

Brown has subverted some of the hostility by absorbing a number of Blairites into his own government, but the ultras remain. Witness the late-night argument between former Blairite aide Darren Murphy and Brown's parliamentary private secretary Ian Austin in the hotel bar on Monday. Bystanders report that the row continued at high volume until Murphy, now a highly respected public-affairs executive, fell down "unaided". Some of these people will never get along.

Elsewhere, Lord Kinnock, alone reduced to tears by Brown's address, had his comeuppance when he tried to reason with the semi-naked pensions campaigners who have become a feature of Labour conferences. "You're a bloody traitor," snapped one senior citizen as he stripped down to his underpants on a rather nippy beach. "You're like Gordon Brown. Now bugger off with him. Bugger off, Kinnock."

As the gathering ended, it was left to deputy leader Harriet Harman to draw things to a close with a pale imitation of her predecessor John Prescott's rambling, rampaging ceremonials. Labour was "confident of our record, ambitious for the future," she cooed, "and so, so proud of Gordon Brown". As cloying tributes go, it was maybe more welcome than that of Janet Kirk, general secretary of Labour's disabled members' group, who told delegates: "Can I congratulate Gordon Brown for being the first disabled Prime Minister? Long may we have more." Brown, who referred to the loss of his eye during his speech, might have put it differently.

Perhaps, in the reign of Gordon, conference-goers just have to work harder for their fun. Take 70-year-old MP Alan Keen, husband of a health minister, who dutifully performed Peter Crouch's appalling "robot dance" goal celebration, simply to win a bonus point for a team of MPs competing against the press in a football quiz. He won the point, but they lost the quiz; perhaps Labour is not as all-conquering as their new leadership would have it.

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