PM launches whirlwind fightback to quell disruption inside party

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown will attempt to face down his critics today with the first of a series of high-profile appearances marking the return of MPs to Westminster, facing journalists at his monthly press conference in Downing Street and addressing the Commons in a long-awaited statement on Britain's future in Iraq. Mr Brown has also agreed to address tonight's start-of-term meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in an attempt to quell unease in the party over his decision to abort election preparations.

He will use the whirlwind day of meetings to try to retake the political agenda from David Cameron's resurgent Conservatives and press home the message to the electorate that he is still very much in charge after weeks of election speculation were abruptly ended on Saturday. Tomorrow, the Chancellor, Alastair Darling, will present his pre-budget report and three-year comprehensive spending review, a major announcement that was rushed forward as part of Labour's contingency planning for an autumn poll.

Mr Brown is sure to face a pummelling by Opposition MPs when he faces the Commons this afternoon. He is expected to outline Britain's long-term exit strategy from Iraq in a statement of the Government's longer term objectives in the war-torn state, insisting yesterday that the statement would go far wider than his much-criticised announcement in Baghdad last week that 1,000 British troops will be withdrawn by Christmas.

Mr Brown could announce further withdrawals from southern Iraq, amid speculation that up to 1,500 extra troops could leave the country in the new year. The Prime Minister told the BBC yesterday: "It's a comprehensive statement about both security, political reconciliation, economic reconstruction."

Tomorrow Mr Darling is likely to be forced to downgrade the Treasury's economic growth forecasts when he presents his pre-budget report and comprehensive spending review. The Chancellor yesterday warned that Britain could well face uncertainty in the next few months. He did not rule out a further increase in thresholds for inheritance tax, currently slated to rise to £350,000 in the next three years. However, concessions over the tax to counter the Conservatives' much-feted plans to allow tax-free bequests of up to £1m may be delayed until after tomorrow's statement.

Mr Darling told the BBC's Politics Show that an international slowdown in economic growth was "inevitable". He said: "The key for us though is to take the right decisions, to make sure that we can deal with these problems and if you start making irresponsible promises on tax, if you start promising to spend money when you haven't got the money to meet those commitments, that is the way that you get into the instability and the weakness of the economy, which the Tories had in the early 1990s. I'm not going to make that mistake."

The Government's industrial troubles will also be evident today with the resumption of strike action in Royal Mail.

Mr Brown's headaches over Europe will surface on Wednesday when the Conservatives stage a Commons debate on European reform. He will come under fire over the run up to the crucial Lisbon informal summit next week where European leaders hope to move towards finalising the EU reform treaty.

What now for ...

* Gordon Brown

Has lost political initiative with a rare unforced error. His attempts to portray himself as a clean break with the years of Labour spin under Tony Blair have been damaged, forcing him to fight to regain control of the Westminster agenda and focus on results in public services. His allies hope the public will quickly forget the election that never was.

* David Cameron

Has been handed a valuable propaganda coup by Mr Brown's climbdown. His party has also had a very good conference; the noises that dogged the Tory leader over the summer have been quelled by the thought of a snap poll. He has won momentum and faces the challenge of maintaining the initiative and making his "Brown the bottler" attack stick.

* Sir Menzies Campbell

The battle between Cameron and Brown has squeezed the Lib Dems – down to 12 per cent in yesterday's ICM poll for the News of the World. The party has to ensure a likely 18-month delay before the election does not allow discontent with Sir Menzies' leadership, and speculation about his successor, to harm them.