Leading article: A bounce that won't deliver Mr Brown an election

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown travelled to Paris for a meeting of eurozone countries in an imposing mood. Continental leaders were anxious to hear the British Prime Minister's advice on the financial crisis with a view to applying similar solutions to those adopted by the British Government.

The Paris summit revealed just how much the Prime Minister has recently gained in stature from the disasters buffeting the British, European and world economies. The broadly sensible bailout of Britain's banks has been contrasted favourably with George Bush's perceived dithering in Washington, though it should not be forgotten that Mr Bush had to steer his package for the bankrupt US mortgage giants through a hostile Congress – not a problem Mr Brown faced – nor, indeed, that the markets have failed as yet to respond to Mr Brown's medicine.

The Government's response to Iceland and its buccaneering banks has been less felicitous; the macho resort to anti-terror laws to freeze Iceland's assets was gesture politics at its worst, exposing the country to ridicule and undermining the arguments in favour of such legislation. But overall, Mr Brown's Churchillian mien has played fairly well with a public that seeks reassurance that with a bit of blood, sweat and tears, we can pull through. Recent polls, showing the gap narrowing between Labour and the Tories, albeit with the Tories still leading, bear this out.

Indeed, the Tories have a struggle on their hands. It is the same problem facing all centre-right and broadly free-market, anti-regulatory political parties, which is how to find a coherent "narrative" at a time of market chaos that fits a public mood that inevitably, however illogically, is tilting against those markets.

For now, David Cameron wisely plays the role of the concerned but loyal opponent, doing little to rock the boat. Many of his advisers feel it is enough to sit back and wait for the recession to bite and deliver voters into the arms of the Opposition. But a party seeking to wrest the reins from an old and enfeebled regime cannot maintain this posture for long without risk.

Meanwhile, it is Mr Brown who benefits politically from the old maxim, "Hold on to nurse for fear of something worse". The question is whether voters will continue to want to hold on to Mr Brown in the longer term, as the full cost of the financial disasters, those experienced and those to come, sinks in and assumes material form – especially when Mr Brown was the man who proclaimed an end to boom and bust while cosying up to the bankers and hedge funds who caused this maelstrom.

The Glenrothes by-election will only be an initial test. At the moment, for all the media-generated fizz about "coping with a recession", the public hasn't yet experienced much more than fear. The test of the durability of the Brown bounce will come further down the line, when job losses and home repossessions soar, living standards fall and the public has to pay for the Government's massive disbursal of rescue funds in terms of tax rises.

Mr Brown may be enjoying the sensation of being a Churchill for our times, but it probably won't save him. Churchill lost the election in 1945, after all, when voters decided that his unquestioned merits as a wartime hero did not outweigh the defects of his party, which the electorate blamed for having got Britain into the mess of appeasement, and war, in the first place. Mr Brown may yet avoid suffering a similar fate, but it would be a political miracle if he does so.