Analysis: Brown gets breathing room for now

It was always going to be difficult for Gordon Brown to look popular and in control of his own party at the moment. But being overshadowed by his wife might end up being one of the more embarrassing unintended consequence of breaking with tradition, so that she could introduce him to the assembled delegates.

Sarah Brown told conference delegates she had asked to address them ahead of her husband’s speech. That seemed to take everyone by surprise.

This was pure political theatre. Gordon Brown may not be willing to use his children as a PR stunt but he was willing to use his wife. And even this could end up back-firing on him if some commentators decide his wife is more popular than her husband – she was clearly given a very warm reception by conference delegates.

Having the media and a number of his colleagues state that he would have to give the speech of his political life was never going to really help matters either and his speech, despite promising some policy, failed to deliver anything earth shattering.

The Labour leader did give warnings to those within his own party and the Conservatives that he was determined to carry on as prime minister, and that he was the only person with the ability to make the tough decisions.

People might argue about which of the two Daves (Cameron or Miliband) he was referring to when he talked about this “being no time for a novice” to take over the running of the country.

He also made a point of name checking most of his cabinet – although David Miliband was buried somewhere towards the end of the speech.

There was a smattering of new proposals, the crowd pleaser being relief for those suffering from cancer from having to pay prescription charges. While this is clearly a welcome policy, even here Gordon Brown was responding to previous criticism of the NHS rather than giving us anything new.

Mr Brown acknowledged his “mistakes” without listing them. His admission that he had been hurt by the reaction to the cut in the 10p tax band was a rare moment of frailty unheard of and unseen by this prime minister in the past.

The language was slightly different too.

Mr Brown seemed to have been woken from a slumber. Here was a man who for years had delivered rousing, sometimes brutal speeches both in parliament and to Labour party conferences of old.

Here was a man who had tried to ape his predecessor and failed so spectacularly that he was now considered one of the most unpopular prime ministers in modern history.

So this speech was somewhere in between trying to be like his predecessor – while only name checking him once – and trying to recapture a sense of his old passion.

It was not the rousing tub-thumping speech he needed to give, but then maybe expectation was probably too high – or low depending on your own point of view.

For his supporters it appears to have been enough. Take UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis: “The prime minister has shown his grit today and delivered a powerful speech full of determination and passion.

“This is exactly the sort of agenda that people wanted to hear from their Labour government. The prime minister made it absolutely clear that the NHS will remain at the heart of a fair society.”

Mr Brown may have bought himself some breathing space. But the question now is for how long? Most people seem to think the prime minister has until the European and local elections next June. If he suffers a disaster then its likely that this will have been his last conference speech as leader.

Matt West