Labour has commenced its annual conference in Bournemouth with the party in its strongest position in years. Confidence among MPs is high. Morale among rank-and-file members is buoyant. Even the unions are likely to keep their grievances muted over the next few days. This is quite remarkable for a party which has been in power for a decade.
And it is even more remarkable given that many observers were predicting deep divisions to result from the departure of Tony Blair. But the cracks never opened. Labour is, in fact, more unified than it has been in a long time. This is largely thanks to the performance of Gordon Brown since he achieved his ambition of becoming Prime Minister in June. Mr Brown has dominated the political stage for the past three months. All new leaders tend to enjoy a honeymoon with their parties and the electorate. But there has been no shortage of banana skins thrown in the path of the new Prime Minister. Mr Brown has been faced with an attempted terrorist attack, widespread flooding, a new outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and Britain's first run on a bank since the 19th century. All of these events had the capacity to derail Mr Brown's premiership.
Of course, it is too soon to say that all of these crises have been put to bed. Foot-and-mouth has not been contained, despite the premature announcement of the all-clear last month. The dislocation in global financial markets which prompted the run on Northern Rock is not over either. But Mr Brown has seemed to deal with these problems with assurance, confounding those who argued that he would be too flat-footed to cope with unexpected events.
Just as significantly, Mr Brown has sought to demonstrate over the past three months that he is not a tribal figure. By reaching out across the political spectrum and taking on advisers from other parties, he has left his opponents in disarray. And the strain is beginning to show. There is some disaffection in Conservative ranks at the direction of David Cameron's leadership. Concern bubbled up at last week's Liberal Democrat conference over the performance of their leader, Sir Menzies Campbell. The longer Mr Brown's honeymoon continues, the greater these pressures on his rivals will grow.
The honeymoon does not seem to be waning. Labour is enjoying a healthy lead in most of the opinion polls. Mr Brown also seems to be the most respected party leader among the public. This has led to speculation that he will capitalise on his popularity by calling an early general election. Some of his advisers are urging him to go to the country as soon as next month.
Calling an early poll would a momentous decision. There are some sound arguments in favour and against. On the one hand it would give Mr Brown a personal mandate. But on the other it would come only two and a half years after the last general election. Yet Mr Brown should remember that the date of the next election is only one of the issues facing him. An even greater challenge will be to formulate a clear definition of what he plans to do with the formidable range of support and political capital he has built up since becoming Prime Minister. Changing public perceptions is one thing; implementing policies is quite another.
Mr Brown has done what he needed to do since moving into Downing Street. He has reassured his party and the public that he has the capacity to be Prime Minister. But what exactly does he intend to do with this prize that he has sought all his political life? That is what he must begin to answer in his speech to Labour's conference today.Reuse content