Steve Richards: One of Brown's best, but history was not made

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The only advantage for leaders who are unpopular is that they can be easily underestimated. In his speech yesterday, Gordon Brown broke away briefly from the noisy gunfire to deliver one of his best orations at a party conference. Unlike some of his recent mediocre efforts, the speech had structure, an argument and a sense of direction. No one knows whether this will save him, but it forms part of the narrative this week, that he has a little more prime ministerial space than appeared to be the case even a few days ago. He is not dead yet.

Brown had to meet several objectives in order to breathe politically for a little longer. Most fundamental of all, he had to convey a sense that there was a point in him staying in a job when some within his party and many more in the wider electorate want him out of it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, he seized on the global financial crisis to argue that this was no time for political novices. He had in mind David Cameron obviously, but also those that pose more immediate threats: David Miliband, James Purnell and the rest of his ministerial critics who have given little thought to economic policy during their relatively sheltered political careers.

There are many disadvantages for Labour in having a leader who has been around for so long, not least when a tired Government needs to seem fresh and new. But here was a reminder that, whatever his flaws, Gordon Brown is a big political figure and one, drawing on his new Labour origins, who can construct a progressive argument that has a potentially broad appeal.

After navigating his way around the economic gloom, Brown at last challenged what for him is the recent fatal revisionism about his period as Chancellor. Once he was prudent with a purpose. Now he is widely seen as reckless, a major cause of his current unpopularity. The revisionism is put most potently in the Conservatives' soundbite which accuses Brown of failing to mend the roof when the sun was shining.

In listing some of the specific services that were improved over the period when Brown was Chancellor, he countered with his alternative soundbite: "We did fix the roof when the sun was shining."

Inevitably, when he and his party are slumped in the polls, there were long sections about the Conservatives. He did not focus on David Cameron directly. The opposition leader got only one passing direct reference, but there were hints everywhere of Brown's famous dividing lines, summed up most vividly when he argued that a party that does not believe in the potential of government does not deserve to be in government. The more positive parts of the speech were peppered with examples of how government can have a benevolent impact on voters' lives.

Without any success over the past year, Brown has attempted to find an accessible language that conveyed in unthreatening terms his view that government has a role in helping people. The collapse of the financial markets has emboldened him to be a little more expansive.

The attempts at conveying Brown's more human side could have been excruciatingly embarrassing. Some of them worked. His wife Sarah introduced the speech with no little poise, a clever and surprising innovation. As for the rest, at least he kept the personal stuff in the speech – with which he never feels entirely comfortable – to a minimum.

Although Brown's set-piece was well-constructed and presented, he was delivering it from a very big hole. Polls suggest that Labour faces meltdown at the next election and that his personal ratings are so low they break records. There was nothing epic in it to transform such a bleak political landscape. It was not a moment of history, one where you know for sure the words were changing politics as they were being delivered. The gunfire will resume and will intensify if the polls remain dire.

The question those firing the guns within the Labour Party need to ask is whether any other potential leader could have risen to such a nerve-racking occasion in the same way.

The potential leaders must ask the same question too. If there is a change in the next few months imagine the pressure on a new leader addressing the pre-election conference in a year's time. He or she better be good.