Would Gordon Brown make a better leader of the Labour Party than Tony Blair? In one sense, there can be no doubt. As his speech at the Bournemouth conference so vividly showed, Mr Brown would put the soul back into the party. He is a fierce egalitarian who finds poverty almost morally offensive. This is not a very English trait or even a very Labour one, since Labour was traditionally a party of the working-class aristocracy rather than one preoccupied with the poorest and most dispossessed. But it gives his politics a focus and a drive that Mr Blair lacks. The Prime Minister's aim has been to appeal to the broad-minded middle classes - the sort of people who send an annual donation to Oxfam, tolerate homosexuals, dislike cruelty to animals, want the streets free of beggars and litter, worry about the environment (but continue to drive everywhere), and so on. Like him, they talk of fairness, but not equality; of schools and hospitals, but not the public sector; of helping out the poor, but not redistribution. If there is a gap between Mr Blair's words and actions, and a certain lack of rigour in his thinking, that is not very different from all those dwellers of suburbia who happily agree that nurses and teachers should be paid more, but grumble about high taxes. In his very lack of mission and focus, beyond a general do-gooding earnestness, Mr Blair echoes a characteristic English mood.
This approach has brought Labour to power and kept it there. Yet Mr Blair has undermined the basis of his own appeal by his insistence on going to war in Iraq. People have seen a new, messianic Mr Blair, determined to slay faraway dragons, and they do not like the look of it. They suspect he has gone slightly mad and become too fond of being photographed getting on and off aeroplanes. They may not share Mr Brown's gritty obsessions with the distribution of wealth, but at least he seems rooted in the same world as them. Certainly, it is a myth that Mr Brown is unelectable. With the possible exceptions of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo, which front-line Tory politicians could even run him close?
But would Labour be as comfortable with Mr Brown as many party members seem to think? Here, the doubts set in. Mr Brown has been Labour's Treasury man for so long (since 1992), and moves in such mysterious ways, that it is hard to know what he thinks on many common subjects of political exchange - crime and policing or the environment, for example. He has not looked enthusiastic for wars, but chancellors rarely do. What is certain is that he is not old Labour. He has a strong sense of the importance and integrity of the public realm and a firm belief in the redistributive function of taxation and public spending. He accepts that, particularly in running services (as opposed to capital projects), the market will often fail. But he also believes in a vigorous, uninhibited private sector; he is no great friend of employment rights such as limits on working hours, which may restrain enterprise or lead to "labour market rigidities", and he abhors the consensual Continental model that involves unions in decision-making at both government and company level. He has a deep suspicion of "producer capture" in the public sector, and most of the targets, checklists and incentive schemes that so upset teachers and doctors are imposed at his behest. He is a centralist, even a control freak, and not a localist.
And yet Mr Brown's personal beliefs may not be the most important factor: what matters is a political record that inspires confidence in his judgement. Mr Blair, over Iraq, may well have expended his capital with the voters as well as his party. For all his talk of no reverse gear, it is hard to imagine that he could take Britain to war a sixth time, still less win a referendum on Europe. He cannot even sell to his own MPs proposals for student fees, which (with a few minor changes) would be entirely redistributive in their effects. Can he possibly sell to the electorate, with conviction, the case for higher taxes that Labour must make eventually if it is to rebuild the country's public services and infrastructure? Could he undertake the even more difficult task of persuading people that growth and consumption should not always be the highest national priorities? That, too, will surely become necessary as concern grows about global warming, about poverty in the developing world and about the social and psychological effects of an excessively work-oriented society.
The Tories dumped Margaret Thatcher as soon as she became an electoral liability. Thanks to Iain Duncan Smith's comical gang, Labour faces no such pressure. But if it wants to pursue a proper centre-left agenda and make truly bold decisions, it should recognise that Mr Blair is now a liability.
Where Moses went wrong
Have you got a handling strategy? You may think that this would be found in one of those magazine advice columns for lonely teenagers. But as the Daily Telegraph reports, it is to be found in Lambeth Palace, where Jeremy Harris, secretary for public affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury (or "ABC"), wrote "a handling strategy on gay issues". The strategy involves "finding attractive, alternative stories involving ABC", including "ABC as poet - do a reading, make a high-profile Lords intervention, announce a theology prize". ABC is also "to be seen and heard as offering a balanced ticket". This is valuable advice and one can only regret that previous great leaders lacked it. Moses brought us the Ten Commandments, Jesus the Sermon on the Mount, Luther his 95 Theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg church. But they all lacked a handling strategy and never thought to offer a balanced ticket. Their loss.