In his speech to Labour's conference yesterday, Gordon Brown showed why he is the most formidable politician of his era. Brown disentangles his party from the thornier parts of Tony Blair's agenda, and yet does so in ways that keeps the new Labour coalition intact. At the same time, he has the political space to reach beyond the party's confines and claim to speak for Britain and his vaguely defined British values.
As a result, we are witnessing an extraordinary revival. The original architect of New Labour has rebuilt a similar political force to the one that strode towards power in 1997. Brown's speech had biblical echoes, but its underlying purpose was more expedient. Whenever the election is called, he wants to win big.
Brown has won plaudits in recent months for his steady response to unexpected events. In reality, the elemental forces that tested him in the summer were not quite as intimidating as they appeared at the time. Much more impressive is the way he has changed the focus on public services without provoking accusations that he is "anti-reform", the vague but lethal dart that used to be thrown at him.
A key phrase in the speech was his belief in services "accessible to all, personal to you". This is a reformers' slogan but one with less iniquitous implications compared with Tony Blair's fetish for a mythical "choice".
There was no mention of "choice". Instead, Brown's commitments are immediately accessible to patients and pupils: more access to GPs, the expansion of "one-to-one" tuition for pupils and additional financial help for poorer kids that want to attend universities.
In terms of dealing with his party, Brown also pursues a different strategy to that of his predecessor. Blair's conference speeches and the briefings that preceded them contained lectures to his party about the dangers of "going back to the past", a fantastical image as few in Labour sought to retreat to the 1980s or 1970s.
But Blair sought to convey a message to the wider electorate, that they could relax about voting Labour because he would take on the vote-losing dinosaurs in his party. Brown is equally obsessed about wooing and reassuring those outside the hall, but prefers to suggest that his party as a whole has changed, that it can be part of the big tent, rather than a group threatened with expulsion on the grounds that it wants to move "backwards".
Mr Blair tended to proclaim: "Look at me, I am the father of the nation, in spite of my party." Brown builds his even more bulging big tent by declaring: "I am father of the nation, partly because of my party."
He does not seek definition any longer by fighting pretend battles, although, over time, he will probably have plenty of real ones. Meanwhile, the difference of approach gives Brown space to move rightwards on some issues without his party fuming so much, at least for now.
Astutely, Brown did not mention David Cameron and the Conservative Party once in his speech. In this respect, he follows Blair, who deployed the same device in the mid-1990s, when John Major did not get a reference, as if the Conservatives were irrelevant to the future.
Brown highlighted only the misjudged pessimism in Cameron's recent declaration that Britain was a broken society. He did so without naming the Tory leader. He also made a commitment to help children from all families– and not just those with traditional married couples, the current narrow- minded stance of the Conservatives. Mischievously, Brown claimed the Bible for vindication. Even the books in the big tent span the political spectrum. The Bible is not known as a left-wing tract.
In many other ways, too, Brown delivered a speech straight out of the New Labour texts from the early buoyant days, but without the razzmatazz. Brown did not revive the soundbite about standing for the many and not the few, but, in essence, that was the message in the carefully balanced passages. There would be rights and responsibilities. He would always place economic stability first. He stood for British values. It has long been an aim of New Labour to acquire the flag for progressive values. Mr Brown wrapped a Union Jack around him with more than 70 mentions of Britain and Britishness.
In the months to come he will need more than the protective shield of the flag. He faces many problems and challenges that were not addressed in the speech. The coming public spending round is extremely tight, in spite of his pledges on education and health. In particular, it is not clear how GPs will be persuaded to open their surgeries when people can actually visit them.
On Europe, Brown struck a Blairite third way, declaring the need to be a good European while promising to fight for his red lines. This will not be enough to silence the hysterical screams for a referendum in some of the newspapers. More widely, he did not go anywhere near some of the complex issues relating to the gap in inequality, beyond repeating the pledge to abolish child poverty.
In spite of the challenges, the scale of Brown's achievement is easily underestimated. Several years ago, he decided that when he became leader he would be determinedly consensual and non- tribal. He realised that such an approach would work only if he did not overtly challenge Blair, an act of regicide that would have poisoned his leadership. He knew also that his approach would not work if he had faced a credible Blairite in a leadership contest. Every big and incremental move in recent years was made with his current persona in mind, and he has got there, winning the leadership on his terms. The context in which he won makes his image more credible now.
Is it so credible that Brown should call an early election? Wisely, Brown did not utter a word about the election, allowing him to continue the pretence in interviews that he is getting on with the job and not thinking of minor matters such as when to call the election. In reality, he will make an agonising final decision at the end of the Conservative conference next week. As for Brown's colleagues, they are split not only with each other but also in their hyperactive minds.
Oddly, they agree that the speculation does them good and makes the Conservatives more vulnerable. I wonder. The frenzy of speculation obscures the overwhelming signal from this conference. Once more, Labour is a formidable governing force, its appetite for power undiminished by the years, and in marked contrast to the confused and bewildered troops heading for Blackpool next week. If it is formidable now, surely it will still be strong next year. In my view, Mr Brown has no need to act at odds with his worthy image and make a frenzied dash to the polls.Reuse content