Leading article: A Chancellor stakes his claim to the keys of No 10

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The Independent Online

But first there was the build-up. Ministers, by no means all of them Brownites, lined up to express their confidence in the Chancellor's suitability to succeed Tony Blair, and strongly hinted that no one would, or should, run against him. Mr Brown and his wife proceeded to the platform as a "first couple", tracked by cameras. Once at the microphone, Mr Brown displayed the same gravitas as when he spoke at Robin Cook's funeral last month. He commanded attention.

If there was an overriding theme, it was continuity: continuity in his lavish praise for Tony Blair, continuity in his choice of New Labour vocabulary, and continuity in repeated pledges to perpetuate and renew the New Labour project. The next election, Mr Brown insisted, "must and would be New Labour renewed" against a Conservative Party "incapable of renewal". There was scant consolation here for those who hoped that a Brown prime ministership would mean the dilution or abandonment of New Labour and all its works.

In fact, Mr Brown almost went out of his way to taunt "old" Labour with his attachment to modernity, while placing renewal in the party's tradition of social reform. The "home-owning, share-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy" the Chancellor presented as his objective was hardly what the left of his party had wanted to hear. Mr Blair, on the other hand, seemed delighted.

Mr Brown's brand of continuity, however, was selective: there were subtractions and additions that hinted how he might make the New Labour project his own. Iraq, which will surely be central to Mr Blair's legacy, went unmentioned, as did Mr Blair's pet city academies, which were never once even alluded to, despite a host of promises by Mr Brown to make Britain's education the best in the world.

The Chancellor also spent time setting out an ethical and moral framework in terms that have not been heard from this Government since the ethical foreign policy faded in Mr Blair's first term. But this was more than ethical foreign policy, it was ethical policy across the board - universal free health care, 15 years of education for all, ending child poverty - with more than a touch of the Calvinism that Mr Brown brings from his childhood at the Manse. Serious and spare, Mr Brown offered none of the jocular lightness of a Blair speech - and none of the spin either.

If this was a foretaste of what a Brown succession would mean, it has much to commend it, in tone as in substance. The balance struck on world poverty, global trade and jobs, and the domestic priorities came across as serious and realistic. What Mr Brown did not explain, however, was how his version of continuity would facilitate the policy objectives he has in mind.

After eight years of New Labour, Britain is now a less equal country in many respects than it was when Mr Blair entered Downing Street. The wealth gap has widened, a pensions crisis is looming, education targets are being missed. While child poverty has fallen and economic growth is better than in much of Western Europe - both achievements in themselves - much public money has been spent to, as yet, questionable effect. Mr Brown has presented himself as Prime Minister-in-Waiting. But he cannot afford to forget that, as of now, he is still Chancellor of the Exchequer.