Gordon Brown's arrested flight to safety

The British prime minister, who arrives today in New York, is, for the time being, safe from his own party following a vigorous speech at the Labor conference. Gordon Brown saw off the vultures circulating around his leadership and bought himself time with what has been widely praised as the speech Labor supporters had been asking for. 

It was designed to demonstrate that he remains the best man to lead Britain to the next election, expected in 2010. He admitted his mistakes, promised to do better, but told  the party faithful that there was no one better to lead the country through the economic turmoil ahead.

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It helped him that the younger man many in the party think should be its new leader, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, failed to ignite the party faithful in his conference speech. When Brown, in his address, said "this is no time for novices" the press took it to refer to two Davids -- Miliband as well as Cameron, the youthful Conservative leader.

The content and tone were well judged, and Brown’s basic message -- that Britain needed a "new settlement" to meet the challenges of the day -- was designed to neutralise his principal negative: that he is the leftover from the Blair-Brown era, rather than a new leader for changed times.

Referring to the global crisis, he said: "In truth, we haven’t seen anything this big since the Industrial Revolution. This last week will be studied by our children as the week the world was spun on its axis and old certainties were turned on their heads."

He promised his Government would be a "rock of stability and fairness" during uncertain times, and was driven by the "moral purpose" of focussing on working people and the vulnerable.

He said the state cannot deliver everything -- but nor can the economy. The "dogma of unbridled free markets", he said, had been proved wrong.

Starting with his visit to the US today, Brown also pledged to rebuild the financial system around new principles of transparency, sound banking, responsibility, accountability, and "integrity". Bonuses "should be based on hard work, effort and enterprise", he said, capturing the resentment of people at the get-rich-quick culture of the City, where the popular perception is that people have enriched themselves through short-term speculative deals which have ignored the common good.

This was rousing stuff, and the beginning of the vision -- a governing philosophy capable of uniting the British people, giving them hope in anxious times -- which people have so criticised him for lacking.

But it never got there. 

Blair, or Obama, would have taken the idea of this "new settlement" and preached on it until it resonated in people’s hearts. They would have used the crisis in the financial markets to remind people of the dangers of greed and idolatry and the hubris of institutions. They would have metaphorically transferred trust away from the market and into homes.  

Crises are useful that way:  they can lead to a new kind of consent -- a fusion, almost, of governed and governing, which gives the energy and legitimacy to carry through policies for the good of all.  

But having started down the runway, Brown never achieved lift-off. The speech just fragmented into a shopping list of pledges and promises and "values" which were little more than box-ticking: measures to tackle climate change,law and order, security for the elderly, and so on. It was a stump speech, a pre-election manifesto, a list of why people should continue to support the Government.

It made the basic mistake of thinking that policies are the heart of the Brown government’s problem, but they aren’t. The prime minister is deeply unpopular because he lacks credibility at a time of crisis and anxiety. The lack of credibility stems from a lack of vision.

The speech saved Brown for the time being, but it is unlikely to impact greatly on the opinion polls. There is a philosophical vacuum at the heart of the Labor government which the prime minister, despite a superb speech, simply did not manage to fill.

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