THIS was billed as Gordon Brown’s “make or break speech — the most crucial speech of his political life”. His performance at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton yesterday, we were told, would decide whether he would cling on to the premiership or start the grisly process of his removal from power.
For a man who had been denounced by one of his own parliamentary colleagues as a “dead man walking”, Mr Brown demonstrated in his opening comments that he was very much alive — far more lively and more bullish and smiley than he had been for months.
The conference, anticipating a repetition of the dreary, often droning delivery that sometimes typifies Mr Brown’s speeches, sat up shocked when, within seconds of mounting the platform, he roared: “We have changed the world once and we are going to change the world again.”
But if he started on a high note, it got even higher, his normally growling voice rising to the level of an agitated counterpoint tenor as he listed with mounting excitement a long litany of Labour’s achievements in power since 1997.
The conference cheered and clapped and incredibly rose to its feet: a standing ovation within two minutes of embarking on his speech — not even Margaret Thatcher, in her heyday, had experienced that.
This was not the Gordon Brown that we have come to know and respect. Had someone put something in his tea?
Or had Lord Mandelson, whose speech on Monday roused the conference from its torpor, given him some after-hours coaching?
The Business Secretary, beady eyed and for the most part solemn, watched the Prime Minister like a schoolmaster assessing a difficult pupil.
But this early verbal cloudburst did not last long. Mr Brown quickly reverted to his routine delivery, and style which does not provoke an audience into paroxysms of ecstasy.
It was a fighting speech, a call to arms, but the passion of his first few sentences fizzled out like a dying bonfire. He did not mention — nor would you expect him to — the fact that the Tories are miles ahead in the polls. And probably because the latest poll shows them ahead of Labour, he did not mention the Liberal Democrats at all. A wise move that.
Yet, for all the talk about cuts after the election, Mr Brown gave the impression there was money to burn.
He delivered an impressive list of plans, a kind of national goodie bag, which had delegates clapping about every other sentence. These included better care for cancer sufferers, improvements for pensioners, special homes for unwed teenage mothers, a referendum on a form of proportional representation, a clampdown on binge drinkers and greedy bankers, a new National Investment Corporation, no compulsory ID cards for British citizens — and so it went on.
A return to the Conservatives, he warned, would mean a return to cardboard cities, and a government which would walk away from problems instead of confronting them.
The Prime Minister certainly won over the conference. But that is a very different matter from winning over the electorate next spring.
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