PM on defensive as conference ends

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown was on the defensive as the Labour conference ended today as he declined to spell out any of the "tough choices" on public spending cuts he has promised to make.

In a succession of TV interviews, the Prime Minister had to explain why Labour had clocked up new spending commitments totalling an estimated £4bn without listing any big cuts to ensure they could be financed.

Some ministers are privately worried that Mr Brown is not fully persuaded of the need to make headline-grabbing reductions in the Pre-Budget Report (PBR) next month – even though he announced his conversion to cuts in his speech to the TUC conference last month. "He’s moving in the right direction but we are going to have to push him over the finishing line," one said.

Others insisted the onus was on preserving frontline services at this week’s Brighton conference to revive Labour morale but insisted that "real cuts" such as the delay and cancellation of some big projects would be unveiled by the Chancellor Alistair Darling next month.

A document published by Labour today, giving the broad outlines of its general election manifesto, reiterated the party’s commitment to "hard choices" but gave no examples of cuts apart from the usual mantra of efficiency savings. It said: "In the PBR we will show how frontline services will be protected."

In his round of interviews, Mr Brown was asked why he had not mentioned any cuts in his conference speech on Tuesday, when he announced new commitments on free personal for the elderly; child care for two-year-olds; cancer treatment and new measures to tackle anti-social behaviour and said they could be financed from savings in other programmes.

Today the Prime Minister insisted that he had confirmed plans to halve the deficit in the public finances in four years, and referred to asset sales of £16bn and previously-announced tax rises.

He told the BBC: "I did set out the efficiencies and the cost-cutting we are going to do…We are determined to have our deficit reduction plan in the context of improving frontline services. It is possible. I have done it before." He stressed that would mean "tough choices, difficult choices and that more would emerge in the PBR.

Mr Brown told Channel 4 News that Labour would ensure "slimmer but more efficient government". He added: "There are certain things we should not do now because it is necessary to contribute to our frontline services."

Labour leaders left Brighton today claiming that the conference had put the party in a much stronger position to fight back against the Tories. Crucially, they believe, Labour defined the "choice" between the two main parties clearly: Labour would protect frontline services while the Tories would relish making indiscriminate cuts; Labour would invest now while the Tories would put recovery at risk by cutting in the recession and Labour would represent "the mainstream majority" and the Tories the "privileged few."

One senior Labour figure said: "It’s game on. We are back in the race. We are the outsiders but we are out of the traps."

Yet the mood was sober and downbeat as the conference ended today. Labour arrived in Brighton last weekend appearing resigned to election defeat and Cabinet ministers seemed to compete with each other to make the most gloomy remarks. Mr Darling won, comparing Labour to a football team that had lost the will to live.

The mood was lifted when Lord Mandelson electrified the conference with a barnstorming speech on Monday, providing the perfect platform for Mr Brown the following day. The Prime Minister’s defiant address played very well in the hall but left some Labour insiders whether it would be as well received by the country. "A game retriever, not a game-changer," one concluded.

The sense of hope created by the Brown speech lasted only six hours. Then news began to spread that The Sun newspaper had decided to hijack the conference by announcing it was ending its support for Labour and backing the Tories.

Brown allies hope his speech – and Lord Mandelson’s declaration from the podium that Mr Brown would have his undivided support—has buried the issue which dominated conversation in the bars and corridors outside the conference hall: should Labour install a new leader before the election?

Although Mr Brown boosted his survival prospects this week, his aides may be disappointed. The leadership question is likely to re-emerge when MPs return to Westminster on 12 October and, if the opinion polls have not changed after the PBR, when the final window of opportunity to change the leader opens in December.