Steve Richards: Brown proves to be no pushover

Like Harold Wilson, he has no choice other than to wriggle, but he wriggles with aplomb
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The Independent Online

For a leader who is supposed to act with a great big clunking fist, Gordon Brown has a knack of catching opponents by surprise. What is this, a vulnerable Prime Minister made more secure by a dire financial crisis? And who is this, Peter Mandelson back in the Cabinet? Brown is more nimble-footed than he seems. When he's on the ropes his enemies look out for a wild lunge when he has more subtle ways of making a mark.

Politics feels tangibly different compared with the mood when MPs headed off in the summer. The difference is a testament to Brown's wilful agility compared with the more embryonic political skills of his internal opponents, who were hovering over him in July and who continued to plot haphazardly up to Labour's conference in Manchester. Their amateurish scheming has ceased for the time being, and Brown is more or less back in charge. Or at least more in charge than he would have been if he had been the victim of a semi-planned ministerial coup.

Ministers talked with genuine anxiety in Manchester about a possible Cabinet revolt against Brown's leadership, although one of the strongest critics told me he did not think it was ever going to happen. I suspect he was right. Most of the plotters and alternative leaders are only half-formed politicians in a party where all the big political dramas have been handled by a handful of people at the very top. Their time had not yet come.

Nonetheless Brown was aware of the dangers. At the end of July, a figure close to him told me something big was going to happen in the build-up to the conference or soon afterwards. Brown spent part of his summer holiday preparing a survival strategy on this basis, and as events have shown, he was more ready than his opponents.

The Cabinet reshuffle was not one conducted by a Prime Minister striding confidently ahead in the polls. But given that, only a fortnight ago, some were predicting Brown's imminent demise, the changes are an elaborate work of art. Remember the context: plots, terrible polls and a media following a mob-like indiscriminate hostility. The return of Peter Mandelson, the totemic Blairite, takes the already limited wind out of the sails of the ultra-Blairites, but also provides the protective clothing for a Prime Minister in a weak position to make some robust moves. Not so long ago it was deemed impossible by many commentators for Brown to make his old friend, Nick Brown, Chief Whip. Who is now Chief Whip? Step forward, Nick Brown, who will be assisted by another Brownite devotee, Ian Austin.

Brown has also rewarded the key players involved in the so called September Coup that forced Tony Blair to leave earlier than he had wanted. The coup was the insurrection that provoked one Blairite Cabinet minister to declare angrily he would do anything to stop Brown being prime minister. Fast forward to today and Brown is Prime Minister while that particular minister is still in the Cabinet. More often than not Brown prevails in the most heated political clashes of the lot, those that are about the battle for power.

Bizarrely he is helped for the time being by the financial crisis. The convulsions will have much deeper political consequences in the coming years and will provide a new opportunity for a big political figure to emerge, probably but not necessarily from the centre-left. For now the crisis gives Brown some space, allowing him to relaunch his government and return to the "father of the nation" approach he deployed when he became Prime Minister.

Brown is only at ease in his public role as a national leader with an almost apolitical mission. That is not the whole picture by any means, but it is the only one he wants to project. He did so in the early days, only for the image to be blown apart when he was caught planning an election to destroy his opponents, hardly an act of a leader seeking a national consensus. Now he is back, the figure of experience taking on inexperience, a conveniently apolitical dividing line, leading a government "of all the talents", or at least those on the Labour side. This is another throw of the dice, the same throw as the one when he first got the job.

Whether it will "work" or not depends on how widely that term is defined. On one level it has already worked. Brown is safer than he was. Within minutes of his speech to the Labour conference a senior Cabinet minister – not an ultra Blairite – told me that the event was irrelevant. Instead, he argued that the key speech would be the one Brown gave to Labour MPs on Parliament's return, the one he delivered yesterday. The Cabinet minister was pointing out that the mutinous audience was at Westminster, not at the conference. But before Brown came to speak to Labour MPs last night the political temperature had subsided.

The bigger test is whether he and his new Cabinet can pose a threat to the resurgent Conservative Party. As both parties are trapped in the politics of the mid-1990s I do not think the task is impossible. The Conservative leadership follows the New Labour route to power as it tries to feel its way towards the so-called centre ground. Suddenly it is confronted with the original architects of New Labour – Brown, Campbell, Mandelson and others coming together again to save the authentic version, rather than the one adopted by the Conservatives in an attempt to give the impression they have changed more than they really have.

This means the next election will probably be fought on outdated assumptions and tactics from an irrelevant past. Labour manuals from that era provide no guide to the new landscape of collapsing financial markets, yet it looks as if both main parties will cling to them for one last time.

There is nothing dignified about Brown's current position. He wriggles from one daunting situation to the next. But like Harold Wilson in the late 1960s and early 1970s he has no choice other than to wriggle, and he is wriggling with some aplomb. Wilson's problem was that everyone thought he was devious, which prevented him from being so. In contrast, everyone thinks Brown has a clunking fist, giving him the space to surprise. Not for the first time he is still standing while his uneasy, bewildered internal opponents lick their wounds.