Leading article: Brown's real work begins here

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown has emerged from the trials of his first three months as Prime Minister with his reputation enhanced. From day two, with the discovery of a car bomb outside a London nightclub, he has been tested. He has been tested by attempted terrorist attacks, floods, foot and mouth outbreaks, the shooting of an 11-year-old boy in Croxteth and, last weekend, a run on a high-street bank. Meanwhile, he has signalled a change of tone and priorities from those of his predecessor while maintaining most of the same policies. And he has proved better than expected at welcoming non-Labour notables into his big yurt.

When he takes the stage to deliver his big speech to the Labour conference in Bournemouth tomorrow, therefore, he does so in a commanding position. Not perhaps as dominant as Margaret Thatcher at the height of her power, or as all-encompassing as Tony Blair at the height of his popularity. But it is a measure of Mr Brown's mastery of the political scene that he could if he wanted call an election next month, confident of winning handsomely.

Whether or not he puts that confidence to the test, Mr Brown should concentrate tomorrow on setting out some evidence that when he promised to listen, he was not merely paying the lip service of a leader to the Platonic ideal of consultative democracy.

Of course, it is sometimes suggested that there is a conflict between listening and leading. We do not believe that this applies to the issues that should define the next phase of Mr Brown's premiership.

First and foremost is climate change. The people of this country demand action to secure the environment for future generations, but also expect Mr Brown to show leadership in setting out how the British collectively can best rise to the green challenge.

On the evidence of his first three months, the Prime Minister is falling behind three people with whom he really should not want to be compared unfavourably. The first is his hyperactive predecessor, Mr Blair, who did much to bring the world's leading nations to the negotiating table. The second is David Cameron, who has shown an admirable if inconsistent willingness to take risks in using the tax system to change people's behaviour. The third, as we report today, is more unexpected: George Bush. The US President has taken the lead in reaching a deal to phase out HCFCs – chemicals contributing to global warming – that will do as much to mitigate climate change as the Kyoto Protocol.

Mr Brown must maintain momen-tum in the period up to the Bali conference in December at which targets for limiting the rise in global temperature need to be agreed – targets that President Bush still rejects.

Second, he must listen to the British armed forces, their families and the wider public in renewing the terms of the deal by which our soldiers risk all in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Independent on Sunday has led the way in reminding the nation of its obligations under the Military Covenant, and Mr Cameron has again been quick to reflect public opinion. Mr Brown needs to show leadership in fulfilling those obligations – to provide the best medical care, decent accommodation and life-long support for the injured. It will be expensive but it is a price well worth paying.

The third great challenge for Mr Brown is to refocus the National Health Service. There will always be priorities to be balanced, and costs to be weighed against benefits. But the failure of the NHS to prevent avoidable stillbirths that we report today seems to reflect a shortage of midwifery resources on which we have reported before. Britain compares unfavourably in this area with much of the rest of Europe. The year-long review of the NHS reforms announced by Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health, must not be an excuse for inertia.

This newspaper has also campaigned for a better understanding of, and provision for, mental illness. The failings of the present system are graphically illustrated by the sad case of Genevieve Butler, which we report today. This is more than a matter of organising services better for people with acute mental illness. It means tilting the NHS towards low-cost therapy for people with low-level mental health problems. And it means, as we argued last week, a more consistent policy on the mental health risks of cannabis.

The Prime Minister will be well, even rapturously, received in Bournemouth. The relief that Mr Blair has gone gives him a strong following wind. But once the standing ovation has died down, Mr Brown must show that he is more than a clever tactician and an adroit manipulator of symbols. He has to show that he has the courage to lead from the front too.

Listen, and lead, Mr Brown.

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