Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party conference was not, despite all the advance billing, the speech of his life: it was nothing like the prime-ministerial tour de force he had delivered the year before. But then it did not need to be. It was a thoroughly competent and confident performance, which did more than enough to stake his claim to be the party's next leader and the country's next Prime Minister.
Mr Brown set about his task methodically, tackling the personal questions - relations with Tony Blair, the character issue and his Scottishness - head on. He admitted, with a certain low-key elegance, that he and Mr Blair had had their differences and that these had not always been well handled. He was generous to Mr Blair's political perspicacity, without being extravagant in praise. And he made an effort to say more about himself and his "values", accepting that people wanted to know more about him as a person. The "son of the manse" was probably more present in this speech than in any other he has made.
Mr Brown's difficulty was in reconciling the requirement to present his own programme for the future with the need not to reopen the damaging public slanging match that had broken out only three weeks before. After all, Mr Blair is still Prime Minister, possibly for the best part of the year ahead, and much of Mr Brown's claim to be Labour's next leader rests on his record as Chancellor in the Government of Tony Blair.
He managed, just about, to square the circle between continuity and change, but it was sometimes an uncomfortable process to watch. Where the past was concerned, he saw it as a joint Blair-Brown endeavour that successfully met the requirements of the times. It was changing times, rather than changing personalities or leaders, which - he argued - dictated the need for change in the future. "Because the challenges are quite different, the programme for governing will be quite different," as he put it. This was the cue for Mr Brown to separate his priorities and policies - albeit modestly - from those of Mr Blair. There were pledges of more devolution, public services increasingly tailored to the individual, and the half-suggestion of a written constitution. Here were a few tantalising hints of the changes that might await, but not much more.
For the rest, though, Mr Brown's policy statements veered from the reassuring - more emphasis on educational aspiration and environmental protection - to the unsurprising. There was also disappointment for the Labour left. While promising to make society, and government, more inclusive, Mr Brown spoke of "New Labour's renewal" being built upon "a flexible economy, reformed personalised services, public and private sectors ... working together". Translated, this suggested that he would continue the very reforms that so many on the left hoped the party might sideline, along with Mr Blair.
In terms of policy, Mr Brown's speech offered little advance on his speech of 2005 - which may be no bad thing in a Government that often seems to lurch from one new initiative to the next. Where it differed, was in tone. This time last year, the Chancellor spoke as Prime Minister in waiting, even though no date for the handover was even on the horizon. This year, with Mr Blair committed to leaving office within the year and David Cameron's Conservatives ahead of Labour in the polls, the context has changed. This was the speech of a job applicant - albeit an assured one - rather than an heir presumptive. In such complicated political circumstances, that was a characteristically prudent approach for this would-be Prime Minister to take.Reuse content