Leading article: The perfect springboard for an autumn election

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The Independent Online

As the curtain fell on this year's Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, the party's high command can be highly satisfied that they have presided over a formidable affair. The leadership held a firm grip on proceedings. The party seemed unified in purpose. The hunger for power among cabinet ministers, MPs, councillors and activists is apparently as strong as ever.

The disappearance of Tony Blair, and the consequent end of the old civil war between Blairites and Brownites, has had a refreshing consequence. Away from the conference hall could be found a free-ranging discussion about the direction of the party. This is largely because ministers and MPs could speak their minds – and not just on the date of the next election – without fear of being accused of leaning to one of the two rival camps.

There was a healthy air of generational change in Bournemouth, too. While some of the old guard failed to sparkle, younger ministers played key roles, such as Ed Balls and Ed Miliband (although the speech of his brother David, the pre-eminent young pretender, fell dangerously flat).

And most obviously, this was an excellent week for Gordon Brown, presiding over his first conference as party leader. Aided by positive opinion polls, Mr Brown came across as a commanding figure. He looked comfortable in the spotlight and his "big tent" strategy since becoming leader has wrong-footed his opponents. It is a shame, though, that in his zeal to show that he is not a tribal politician, he has appealed to some reactionary and distasteful attitudes. Talking about "British jobs for British workers" and promising tougher sentences for gun possession have not been worthy of him.

Mr Brown also left some crucial questions of delivery unanswered. In his leader's speech, he outlined many admirable objectives. But how does he intend to get there? He promises to get GPs to open their surgeries for longer. But family doctors will inevitably demand more money for doing so, and they are already generously remunerated. Mr Brown spoke of "an NHS that is both pioneering new cures and personal to you". But what policies will bring that about? Finance was an unspoken issue. It has been evident for some time that a contraction on the present rates of public spending is impending. We need more detail about how all these grand promises will be paid for.

Mr Brown will need to spell all this out very quickly if he decides to call an autumn election. And that, of course, has been the great issue overshadowing this conference: will there be a snap poll? The conference certainly had the air of a pre-election rally. But Mr Brown is keeping his options open. So far this uncertainty has been working to Labour's advantage. The speculation over an early poll has been destabilising for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. But Mr Brown ought to be careful. It could become destabilising for the Government, too. Mr Brown will have to kill off speculation pretty soon if he decides against going to the country this year.

But for now the spotlight falls on David Cameron. The performance of the Conservative leader at his party's conference in Blackpool next week will have a significant effect on the timing of the election. If the Tory leader manages to rally the conference to him, a snap election will be much less likely. If it degenerates into open sniping, panic and rancour, an autumn poll would become almost inevitable.

All the pressure is on Mr Cameron, who must deliver the speech of his lifetime. But one thing is clear: if Mr Brown does decide to go to the polls in the next two months, his own conference has given him the ideal springboard.