"Gordon Brown has a plan – for the economy, for the country. David Cameron has no plan," the Brown aide told me as he described "the crucial difference" between the two leaders, and claimed that it could yet put Labour back in the game.
What is the Brown plan? Strategy documents whizzing around Downing Street after the Prime Minister's summer break include the following points:
1. Labour will focus on the policy choice between the two main parties because the Tories are more vulnerable on policy than their current opinion poll lead suggests. The Tories are perceived by the public not to have any policies.
2. The focus on Labour's record and future plans will allow it to close the poll gap.
3. As an economic recovery begins, the Government's approach will be seen to have stopped recession turning into depression.
4. Labour must then show how the recovery will be sustained, where the jobs of the future will come from, and how investment in frontline services (health, education and the police) will be protected, while accepting that both efficiency and across-the-board savings are found. (In other words, the Prime Minister should eventually accept the need for spending cuts.)
5. Labour will argue that Britain's future cannot be built without this continued investment, combined with public service reform and a credible plan to reduce future debt without cutting into the fabric of the services that affect people's daily lives.
6. Labour must offer leadership which convinces and inspires, which means focusing on what really matters to the public, offering fewer but more substantial big interventions and a clear policy message.
So far, so good. It makes sense. I suspect Point 3 is a little optimistic. Voters rarely say thank you – especially when people are still losing their jobs, homes and businesses. "Vote for me, it would have been even worse under the other lot" does not sound like a brilliant election slogan. But Labour strategists claim it could work when combined with portraying the Tories as the "do-nothing" party who would cut spending in the recession and make it worse. (The Tories, by the way, have plans of their own to stop Labour "rewriting the history of the recession" in this way.)
The more fundamental problem for Mr Brown is putting his strategy into practice. He had an inauspicious start to the new political season this week. The plan was to focus on the economy. But very few of his messages will have percolated through to the voters. They were bunged up by the controversy over the Lockerbie bomber and the resignation of the ultra-loyalist parliamentary aide Eric Joyce over Afghanistan. His timing was terrible for Mr Brown, on the eve of his major speech yesterday defending Britain's war strategy.
You can't blame the Prime Minister directly for Mr Joyce's resignation, although he is open to criticism for not making the Government's fuzzy approach in Afghanistan clearer before now.
Mr Brown only has himself to blame for his poor handling of the Lockerbie row. Yes, it was a sticky wicket. But that is what government is about. It was never going to be an option for him to hide away from the TV cameras and have no public view on whether Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi should have been released. He certainly didn't stick to Point 6 above; it was neither convincing, inspiring leadership nor a clear policy message.
In a telling contrast, David Cameron knew his own mind instantly when the news came through that Megrahi would be freed. As there was no judicial ruling that he was innocent, the Tory leader told aides, Megrahi should die in prison."The people on Flight 103 didn't have a choice where they would die," he said. Moreover, Mr Cameron shared his view with the public immediately.
True, opposition is easier than government on a complex issue like Libya. But sometimes in politics, it matters less what you say as long as you say it clearly: Tony Blair's support for the Iraq war was very unpopular, but at least he argued his case strongly.
"Relaunch" is a banned word in No 10 but that is what the six-point plan amounts to. The Tories have counted six since Mr Brown became Prime Minister.
The difference now is that time is running out; this relaunch may be Mr Brown's last. If the poll gap is not bridged in the way his plan envisages, there could be one last attempted putsch from inside his own party. Although this may well fizzle out, as it did in the botched coup a year ago and again in June, the day of reckoning with the voters is not far away.
Mr Brown may well be a man with a plan. But, after the past week, the question arises: is he capable of implementing it?Reuse content