Leading article: The Prime Minister gains some breathing space

A competent speech may have silenced doubters, but problems remain
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The Independent Online

For perhaps the first time in his premiership, events in the outside world have run relatively kindly for Gordon Brown. The sudden acceleration of the global financial crisis last week threatens to bring hardship and economic pain to millions. But it also provided the Prime Minister with a strong moral theme for his crucial speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester yesterday.

It was politically shrewd of Mr Brown to use the backdrop of the financial turmoil to present his argument that Labour is the party of "fair chances for all, and fair rules for all". The penny has dropped in Britain about just how recklessly Wall Street and the City have been behaving in recent years, There is also a growing public awareness of just what an enormous bill taxpayers will face to pay for the excesses of high finance. Mr Brown promised to cut the irresponsible speculators down to size yesterday.

Mr Brown has chosen an opportune time slough off his belief that the vested industries of the financial services must be appeased at all costs. For a politician who has so often failed to respond to new conditions, Mr Brown seems to have found his feet surprisingly quickly in the economic storm. This populist theme of taming the financiers dovetails nicely with Mr Brown's attempt to persuade British voters that they should stick with him in the uncertain economic times ahead, rather than rush into the arms of an inexperienced Opposition.

Nor should we forget that Mr Brown, for all his troubles, still has the levers of power at his command. He has an opportunity to begin the construction of a serious financial regulatory reform package when he flies to New York today for talks with regulators and other national leaders. His next job is to make sure he gets political credit for these efforts back home.

Mr Brown's newly-found voice as an opponent of "unbridled free market forces" brought some cheer to delegates yesterday. And his semi-apology for the 10p tax debacle was also welcomed. For a party as depressed and beleaguered in recent months as Labour, the impact of such gestures should not be underestimated.

The conference crowd was also buoyed by some full-blooded attacks on the Conservatives. The Prime Minister's line about this being "no time for a novice" was his biggest hit in the conference hall. And it also did not escape the notice of many present that this also served as a warning to his own youthful Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.

Yet the truth is that the Prime Minister's speech was not one of those game-changing events that close observers of politics are always on the lookout for. Strip away the rhetoric and it fell short of the radical, progressive policy agenda that Mr Brown might have outlined. Expanded internet access for poor homes, free nursery care, the abolition of prescription charges for cancer sufferers and more catch-up tuition for pupils who have fallen behind in class are, in themselves, perfectly sound proposals. But they feel rather piecemeal and the funding earmarked for them looks rather meagre.

As for Mr Brown's announcement that he wants to raise Britain's target for cutting carbon emissions to 80 per cent, this begs the immediate question of how such drastic reductions are to be achieved. A Government that is gearing up to approve a new generation of coal-fired power stations is hardly well placed to pledge significant new cuts in emissions. There is a credibility gap here.

In fairness, though, the febrile atmosphere of party conferences means they are never good places to unveil detailed new policies. And it is hardly as if the Government has considerable sums at hand to spend on new schemes. Indeed, in the present circumstances, it would be positively irresponsible to crank up public spending. In policy terms, Mr Brown was always playing a tough hand.

So the Prime Minister and his team will come away from Manchester reasonably satisfied with how things turned out. In the short-term, the speech will probably ease the pressure on Mr Brown from within his own party and give him some breathing space to try to regain the initiatives over coming months.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that the root cause of Mr Brown's troubles lies not in the Labour Party, but in the wider country. And, competently delivered as his speech was, it is hard to identify anything likely to revolutionise the views of the majority of people about Mr Brown's hapless premiership. Opinion polls in the coming weeks will be crucial. Unless they show Labour eroding the Tory lead, Mr Brown will find himself in exactly the same predicament as before. MPs, terrified of losing their seats, will be lobbying again for a new leader.

The spiralling international financial crisis has given Mr Brown hope that he might yet salvage a premiership that has so far been undistinguished, at best.And it is likely that he has convinced his party to rally around him for the time being. But it is a thread of hope, not a lifeline. The Prime Minister has brought himself a second chance, but no more.

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