John Rentoul: Does Gordon Brown have the courage to tell his party what it does not want to hear?

The so-called left has not come up with an alternative programme to New Labour
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This time, Blair could not even be bothered to turn up, a remarkable breach of etiquette on the part of someone once described by Roy Hattersley as "one of the most polite people I've ever met". Thus all eyes were on Brown, the coming power.

The funeral, Brown's attentiveness to it and Blair's absence, helped mark a great shift in politics. Only six months ago, before the general election, it was often suggested that Blair might use a third election mandate to sack Brown. Weeks later, in the election campaign, Blair looked like a hostage, with Gordon Brown, arm around his shoulder and gun digging into his side, muttering through clenched teeth: "Just act normal."

As the inevitability of Brown's succession settled, the corridors of power have been rumbling with the sound of feet scuttling from the current Prime Minister to the next. It is like the scene from Madame Campan's Memoirs of Marie Antoinette, when Louis XV lies dying. Suddenly, "a dreadful noise, absolutely like thunder, was heard in the outer apartment; it was the crowd of courtiers who were deserting the dead sovereign's antechamber to come and do homage to the new power of Louis XVI".

Only Blair is not politically dead yet. The Government is in an unusual state of suspension, because everyone knows that power will pass by a certain date - the next election must be called by May 2010 - but that the thunderstorm will probably break long before then. Thus, ministers are caught between pleasing the present Prime Minister and making themselves indispensable to the Dauphin.

With another two or three ministerial reshuffles likely under Blair, it is still too early to hurtle to the aid of the victor of the next Labour leadership election. This enhances one of life's small pleasures for semiologists of political code. Charles Clarke, for example, continues to impress for the way in which he has overcome ancient enmity to make himself an odds-on bet for one of the great offices of state under Brown. Robin Cook, while he lived, was engaged in a similar balancing act, keeping his disagreements with Blair polite while hoping that Brown would bring him back to the Cabinet as a leader of Disillusioned Labour.

And Cook's death brings into sharp focus the question that is bound to hang over the new political term next month. How will Brown cope with his own transition to power? He has already allowed the expectations of Disillusioned Labour to grow far beyond anything he could either want to deliver or be capable of delivering.

The spread-betting market, that most unsentimental guide to the future, does not think he can pull it off. It currently trades on the assumption that the next election will result in a hung parliament. This clearly reflects the belief that the emerging patches of bad economic news will destroy any benefit that Prime Minister Brown might earn from not being the Man Who Took Us To War in Iraq.

Brown is, in any case, far too astute to rely simply on a strategy of not being Tony Blair. He knows that Blair's style of government is perceived as too centralised, secretive and personalised - all faults for which he has, if anything, a worse reputation. Hence the symbolic significance of his eulogy to Robin Cook last week.

By praising a rival politician so generously, in front of an audience that knew full well that their bitter 30-year feud had only recently been partially mended, he tried to show that he could change. He has worked hard this year to show that his reputation for grudge-bearing and factionalism - which marked him out as less well qualified for the top job than Blair - was unfair.

Yet he has not dealt with the substance of the expectations problem. On every policy for which Blair is unpopular with Labour Party members and core Labour voters, Brown has allowed people to think that he would be more left-wing than the present incumbent. This is not healthy either for the party or for his prospects as prime minister.

It allows the Labour Party to sink back into the comfortable belief that Blair is unique, an aberration, a nasty but necessary medicine it had to swallow in order to win elections, but which can be discarded now that the magic has worn off. Too many in the party would happily rewind the video to before John Smith's funeral and fight on a programme on which (with the benefit of hindsight) "we would have won anyway" in 1997. But that was a long time ago now, and anyone who thinks that a 50 per cent tax rate on incomes above £100,000 a year and abolishing the academy schools programme is going to usher in Scandinavian levels of equality is deluded, and Brown needs to say so.

The so-called left has not come up with an alternative programme to New Labour. It is interesting that every bright policy adviser who leaves Downing Street says that taxes ought to be a little higher and that the better-off should pay more. Peter Hyman, in his book 1 Out of 10, wanted a higher top income tax rate (but not as high as 50 per cent) and Patrick Diamond, in The New Egalitarianism, floated the idea of abolishing the upper limit on National Insurance contributions. Yet taxes have risen over the past eight years and the better-off have borne the brunt. The difficult questions are always how to re-engineer the rest of government policy to promote equality.

On this, the Labour Party seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence. It has eagerly accepted the anti-Blairite myth that social mobility has declined in the past eight years - an allegation based on academic research into the fortunes of the generation born in 1970, whose life-chances were moulded by oil crises and Thatcherism. The party is in danger of making the same mistake it always makes, of assuming that the slowness of progress towards social justice is the result of its leader's betrayal rather than the huge complexity of the problems it faces.

That is the most important test of Gordon Brown's fitness for the office to which he has made his progress so certain: does he have the courage to tell his party what it does not want to hear?

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'