In the last two weeks, the prime minister has been compelled to publicly deny that he takes anti-depressants, that he is on the verge of going blind and that U.S. President Barrack Obama is deliberately avoiding him.
“Gordon Brown looks like a failing businessperson on way out — a ‘dead man walking,’”aid John F. Welch Jr., the former chief executive of General Electric, which he felt inspired to observe to more than 880,000 followers on Twitter.
This was the backdrop as Mr. Brown strode on to the stage in Brighton on Tuesday to deliver what many are assuming will be his last speech at a Labour Party conference as Prime Minister. According to a flurry of recent polls, the Labour Party has virtually no chance of winning.
Early polls can be poor predictors of future intentions, of course. It is not over until the last vote is in the ballot box. It is possible that some extraneous event, some hideous international disaster, could occur that suddenly helps the government.
A lot was riding on Mr. Brown’s speech. Could he revitalize a party that began its annual conference over the weekend in a mood of funereal fatalism? Could he build on the argument that the young and untested Conservative leader, David Cameron, is a 'flibbertigibbet,' as the First Secretary of State, Lord Mandelson, called him? Could he demonstrate after a spell of disastrous news coverage that he was neither a 'grumpy old man,' as a disillusioned Alan Simpson MP put it, nor a jockey astride a 'spavined old cart horse,' in the words of the columnist Andrew Gimson?
“Even the Sermon on the Mount would be unlikely to kick-start the party’s heart, and Mr. Brown is no Messiah of communications,”Mary Riddell wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
In his speech, and after it, Mr. Brown had presented himself as unperturbed by all the bad weather swirling around him, declaring without flinching that he was well suited to the job of clawing the party back to re-electability. He would
“not give up, but fight to win for Britain,”Mr. Brown had decided to negotiate a delicate set of circumstances. He had to figure out how to argue that his party was ready to make a comeback, when it is in fact already in power. He also had to seem sincere when promising to fix things that the Labour government has not yet fixed in 12 years in power. He had to convince listeners that Labour had the tools to repair the economy when, critics say, Labour policies helped contribute to the severity of the problems in the first place.
“Now is not the time to give in, but to reach inside ourselves for the strength of our convictions.”
The Prime Minister fashioned a clever way of doing so, saying that the financial crisis had transformed the world, and that Labour was best able to adapt to the new realities. People should vote
“not for a fourth-term Labour government... but for the first Labour government of this new age.”Even when the speech was over, the newspaper broadsides did not cease. Some, indeed, intensified.
On Wednesday the influential The Sun, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, issued an abrupt reversal of the support it always claimed had helped Labour to win power in 1997. In that election, the Sun switched its backing from the Conservatives to Labour. On Wednesday, it seesawed back again — a blow to Mr. Brown and a huge bonus for Mr. Cameron.
“After 12 long years in power, this government has lost its way. Now it’s lost the Sun’s support too,” the newspaper said on its front page along with a photograph of Mr. Brown and the headline, “Labour’s Lost It.”People in the conference hall said they found Mr. Brown relaxed and personable, qualities that have not been his strong points in the past. They said they were pleased by a stream of initiatives he announced, including plans to ensure quicker diagnoses for patients suspected of having cancer, and plans finally to eject the remaining hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
Barrie Taylor, a local government official from London, said:
“It was all right,”Mr. Taylor said he believed that despite polls that showed Labour in the range of 15 percentage points behind the Conservatives, the country would come to its senses when faced with the actual election.
“He gets down on the ground to talk about the issues he feels strongly about.”
Party conferences are self-selecting, packed with cocooned supporters basking in the safe glow of the like-minded. But even upbeat conference attendees here admitted that Labour faced a difficult time. They said, however, that although things seemed dire now, they did not seem nearly as dire for the party as they did in the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power and Labour was riven by internal squabbles.
“People recognize that it can’t get much worse at the moment in terms of the polls, but the threat of having a Conservative government is just so bad that people are fired up,”said Will Straw, the son of Justice Secretary, Jack Straw.
Part of Labour’s problem is simply voter fatigue. Britons tend to grow weary of governments and turn on them. Sensing blood, the ravening British news media can be as vicious as the gang of boys in 'Lord of the Flies'.
Public life here has the risk of turning into a theatre of cruelty. If the media decides it wants to damage and hold you permanently to account in a hard and difficult way, there’s very little you can do about it. With Brown, they sort of decided collectively that he is a no-hoper.
In less than eight month time we will know what direction British Politics is going to take. But Gordon Brown's performance though a credible effort did not stop delegates knitting through his speech. The fight he called for may be a lonely one.