John Rentoul: The PM's speech effortlessly eclipsed that of the man who wants his job

There is a clarity to his style, a cleanness of expression that is still unusual in politics
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Above all, it was good enough to win the beauty contest. Unlike next week's fashion parade in Blackpool, this week's competition has only two contestants, Blair and Brown. But any fair-minded visitor from outside the media bubble would have concluded that the allegedly intolerable pressure on the Prime Minister to name the day for the hand-over to his successor was simply baffling. Gordon Brown gave one of his better speeches on Monday. He seemed more relaxed and, yes, more prime ministerial, than before. His jokes were good. The Conservatives' new big idea, a flat tax, "is an idea that they say is sweeping the world - well, sweeping Estonia". But it contained large expanses of speech-writing-by-numbers rhetoric in which the argument was as allusive as a haiku. In one short section he went from the tsunami to the 7 July bombings in London for a paean for public service, to national security, on which Labour was strong, to the economy, on which Labour was strong too. We were presumably supposed to conclude that Gordon cares and is strong.

That is fine as a holding position, and that is what Brown's speech was: the speech of a man in a holding position. As such, it was effortlessly eclipsed by the speech of the man holding the position that Brown wants. Even though there was plenty of what the Americans call boilerplate in Blair's speech - ready-made, pre-mixed prose, such as the change riff, as in "the world is changing, we must too".

But Blair can still make material that is over-familiar to journalists sound fresh to people who pay only fitful attention to politics, which is most of the population. It is a reasonable bet that most people, on hearing him recite the achievements of the past eight years, with its repeated phrase, "Only a Labour government ...", would think: "Some list."

There was plenty that required the attention of a good editor. We have to "help hardworking families to increase their prosperity", he said at one point. But there was also plenty of substance, in the sense that a speech of this kind is meant not just to stroke but to persuade.

From his holding position, Brown did not challenge his audience at all. Blair, on the other hand, urged his party not to "make a mistake of the proportions of council house sales in the 1980s". The delegates in the hall knew what he meant: opposing the sale of council houses was one of Labour's worst blunders of the Thatcher era, made out of the best of motives and yet which it found remarkably difficult to escape. Now he was saying that resisting the demand for choice in public services would be to fall into a similar historical trap. It may not have changed any minds in Brighton - many in the party remain stubbornly opposed to what they lazily describe as "privatisation" of health and education services - but at least it was doing what a leader is supposed to do. Persuade. Cajole. Provoke and unsettle easy assumptions, so that the debate doesn't simply trundle along predictable tracks.

That is Blair's gift, and we are so used to it that we are alive to the tricks. He was cleverly evasive on some of the difficult issues. Road pricing was mentioned in the single sentence of the whole speech on transport policy. He skated past identity cards on to the stronger ice of an attack on Conservative immigration policy. And his appeal to the party and the country to resist the siren charms of trade protection as a response to world competitive pressures should have prompted the sceptical to wonder, "What siren charms?" As Gordon Brown pointed out in a recent interview with Andrew Marr, one of the striking features of British opinion - as opposed to that in America and much of continental Europe - is the absence of voices calling for tariffs and subsidies.

But we are also so used to Blair's persuasive skills that we are in danger of forgetting that we need politicians who can challenge our assumptions as well as telling us what we want to hear. That is one of the flaws of media coverage of party conferences as if they were beauty contests. Last week the Liberal Democrat conference was treated as a competition between Charles Kennedy and the ill, sweating ghost of him looking unwell last year. This week it was all "Why are we waiting?" and the BBC inviting its audience to submit suggestions as to what Blair should say in his speech (what was surprising was how few said, "I'm off"). But that is to confuse the outcome of a putative leadership election that is, as Cherie said, "a long way off into the future", with the here and now - a function of the journalistic tendency to anticipate, to ask the next, hypothetical, question.

On the basis of this week's beauty contest, the outcome of Labour's next leadership contest is indeed as one-sided as everyone says it is. Charles Clarke, who is often impressive in television interviews, has not yet translated his sharpness of mind and plainness of speaking into platform oratory. The Home Secretary has many of the leaderly qualities of being able to challenge and persuade, but starts a long way behind the Chancellor if you ask people who they see as a national leader. Alan Johnson, on the other hand, gave an assured speech, fluent and witty, although the "miles to go before we sleep" line at the end was cheap reproduction John F Kennedy. And, although he was steely as a junior minister seeing through the reform of student tuition fees, he has not really been tested in the front line.

Gordon Brown's speech was easily enough to outshine those who might be his rivals, even if he spoiled the rosy glow with a bad-tempered interview with Martha Kearney on Newsnight on Monday, when he said there was no "new deal" over the leadership with Blair, "and I think it's wrong of you to suggest something of which you know nothing" (which was why she was asking).

All that means, however, is that Brown came second in a contest he was bound to lose with the Prime Minister.

The writer is the author of Tony Blair: Prime Minister, published by Warner Books; and the chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday