Mr Brown's big pitch: a Britain where all achieve their potential

The Prime Minister's speech was full of stirring conviction but gave little away. Andrew Grice reads between the lines
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown has set out his personal credo and the policy platform on which he will fight a general election within the next eight months.

In his maiden speech to the Labour conference as Prime Minister, he did not mention the looming election, the Conservative Party or David Cameron. Speaking against a Conservative blue backdrop, he highlighted the traditional Tory themes of respect, responsibility, individual aspiration and patriotism as he pitched unashamedly for their natural supporters while implying the Conservative Party was irrelevant.

Describing himself as a "conviction politician", he promised people: "I will not let you down. I will stand up for our schools and hospitals. I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you."

Although Mr Brown did nothing to stoke speculation about a snap poll this autumn, the speech had a pre-election feel. Close allies said he would hold an election either on 25 October, 1 November or next May, and was likely to decide whether to call it this year after next week's Tory conference.

The Prime Minister received a rapturous response from delegates in Bournemouth as his party looked more confident and united than at any time since 1997. His 63-minute speech was pitched mainly at the country rather the party as he sought to show voters he is more than a strong, experienced leader in a crisis. He outlined his vision of a Britain in which everyone achieved their potential and where the opportunities and personalised services open to people who go private for education or healthcare were also there for everyone using the state system.

He used the NHS to tell people "who I am", recalling that it had preventing him going blind by saving his sight in one eye after he was injured playing rugby at the age of 16.

Recalling schoolfriends who did not stay on at school because they could not afford it, he said: "That's the real reason I am here: I want the best of chances for all families ... Why should we accept so many children destined to fail even before their life's journey has begun? So this is the next chapter in our progress. The next stage of our country's long journey to build the strong and fair society. I want a Britain where there is no longer any ceiling on where your talents and hard work can take you."

In another sign that an election is looming, there was only a brief mention of foreign affairs as Mr Brown concentrated heavily on education, health and crime. But there were few new policy announcements. In a sweetener for working mothers, he confirmed that paid maternity leave would be extended from six to nine months and eventually to a year. He said every secondary school pupil would have a personal tutor and made students a "five-year offer" to finance them until the age of 21 after the school leaving age was raised to 18.

The Prime Minister promised a crackdown on under-age drinking and gun crime, more stop and search and dispersal powers for the police, who would also get hand-held weapon detectors and 10,000 hand-held computers to log crimes on the beat and reduce paperwork.

On health, he pledged better access to GPs; a regular NHS check-up for all adults; more screening for breast and colon cancer and a doubling to 5,000 the number of matrons, who would have the power to order additional cleaning of wards and warn under-performing private cleaning firms they would lose their contracts.

Mr Brown conceded that the Government's aim of cutting carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 might not go far enough and so he would ask its independent climate change committee to consider a higher target. Environmentalists and opposition parties have called for an 80 per cent reduction. He said the number of proposed eco-towns would be doubled to 10.

The Prime Minister announced that Labour's election manifesto would include the principle of elections to the House of Lords.

He paid a warm tribute to Tony Blair but repeatedly emphasised the need for change in another attempt to squeeze out Mr Cameron. "Part of experience and judgement is to recognise that when you fall short, you listen, you learn and then you are confident enough to change," he said.

He said the British spirit had not been dented by the attempted terrorist acts, floods and foot-and-mouth outbreak during his three months in No 10. "Britain has been tested and not found wanting. This is who we are. And there is no weakness in Britain today that cannot be overcome by the strengths of the British people," he said.

The Tories accused Mr Brown of producing a "shopping list of reheated ideas and re-announcements" and said he could not be the change the country needed. David Cameron said last night: "After that inspiring speech, it's clear that Gordon Brown has no answers to Britain's problems. The Conservatives do and that is why we have all along called for a general election and continue to do so today. We are ready and waiting."


Change 22

Stand 18

Talent 17

Believe 9

Bible 1

Iraq 1

Cameron 0

Conservatives 0