"This will be a 'big choice' election"

On the eve of the Labour party conference in Brighton, Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre talk exclusiv

It is the Gordon Brown the public seldom sees who sweeps into Downing Street's first-floor study, previously used by Margaret Thatcher and home to a fragment of moon-rock in the corner. He is smiling, witty, self-deprecating, even charming. On the day we meet, it emerges that the Prime Minister is set to receive a "world statesman" award from a group called the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in the United States. Jokingly, we congratulate him. "Ah, but what I need is a 'British statesman' award," he says, laughing. "Or a New Statesman award."

As soon as our interview begins, however, his mood darkens, and he becomes more serious, at times defensive. He seldom makes eye contact and, all of a sudden, he seems oddly impersonal and stiff.

On the inevitable leadership question that hangs as the grim backdrop to this, the last Labour party conference before next year's general election, Brown is tense. He refuses to answer whether, if he believed someone else was better placed to lead Labour to victory, he would stand aside. "That is not the issue at the moment," he tells us. "The issue at the moment is that the Labour Party has to take this country through a very difficult time and I think we'll be judged by results. I think we've made the right choices and I'm not going to get into that sort of argument." In a comment that would bemuse and disappoint those such as Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, who have emphasised the need to talk about Labour's successful record in government, Brown adds: "This is the time for us to show the party not really what we've done, but what we're going to do together for the future."

So can he give us a cast-iron guarantee that he will stay on to lead Labour into the general election? "Well I hope that people will see by my actions the determination I have to work, not just on behalf of the Labour Party, but on behalf of the British people. It is difficult sometimes to explain how resolute I am about the challenges ahead and I think by describing the future as I see it, and by being pretty straightforward with you about parties that duck the big choices and don't make them, and a party like ours that is prepared to make the big choices, I think you see where I am going to take the country. So I'm pretty determined and resolute."

That is not exactly cast-iron, we suggest, at which point he produces one of the strangely timed laughs he occasionally emits in response to awkward questions. "Of course I'm going on, I mean for goodness sake, I wouldn't be
having this interview with you if I wasn't determined to get my message across to the British people." In response to the claim in a book by the Sky News political editor Adam Boulton that Blair called Brown a "quitter" who would "duck out" of fighting the next election, Brown is withering: "I don't think Tony Blair has ever said that."
So he never feels like quitting?
“I've got a job to do."

Not for the last time in our interview, he expresses frustration at the difficulty of articulating his position in what he says is a "hostile" climate. "I've got my ideas and I've got my views about the future, and it's my duty and my responsibility to get these across. I accept that you're dealing on occasion with a very hostile opposition and media, but it's my duty to get my views across," he says, in his first reference to the near-universal aggressive coverage he has received throughout his troubled two-year premiership.

“Taking a country through a very difficult recession requires some of the most difficult judgments and decisions, and you can't always explain that while . . . the press is focused on some issues, and you are actually trying to deal with big issues of concern . . . a lot of people think that what you spend most of the time doing is reading the newspapers and I'm not. I'm spending my time dealing with the issues."

Issues that include the fallout from the financial crisis and the recovery from global recession. He meets us at the start of a week in which "British statesman" Brown becomes "world statesman" Brown. He is flying to the United States to attend a UN summit on climate change in New York and the G20 meeting of global leaders in Pittsburgh. In the next six months, he tells us, he has a gruelling "series of conferences" in which he will be seeking to reach agreements on what he calls the five "massive global challenges": climate change, global prosperity, world poverty, international terrorism and nuclear disarmament.

Above all else, perhaps, the Prime Minister is staking much on a climate change deal in December. On the day of our interview, Brown has become the first world leader to announce that he will personally attend the Copenhagen summit, negotiations for which, he has said in a magazine article, "are proceeding so slowly that a deal is in grave danger". But isn't the United States, with its recalcitrant Congress and domestic distractions, set to be the stumbling block once again, even under President Barack Obama? As with the financial crisis, Brown has shown leadership on climate change - but will he be able to stand up to the White House on this defining issue?

He doesn't share our pessimism, preferring to talk warmly of his Democratic counterpart: "I talk to President Obama a lot on these issues . . . The challenge is not to criticise America for not doing something, the challenge is to work with America to do the best. You've got an administration - the first-ever American administration - that really wants a global climate change deal."

In April, the success of the previous G20 summit in London, combined with Obama's visit to Britain, gave Brown his one and only bounce in the polls this year. So will he arrive at the Labour party conference in Brighton boosted by his latest efforts at international diplomacy, having convinced the public once again that he and Obama have rescued the planet from financial and environmental collapse? The Prime Minister - described by the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman as the man who "saved the world financial system" - is on comfortable territory here: "I think my credentials . . . are very strong."

Krugman, however, has also criticised Brown, who he says "bought fully into the dogma that the market knows best, that less regulation is more". Does the Prime Minister regret his earlier neoliberal zeal for deregulation? As Chancellor, he gave numerous speeches to banking audiences in which he extolled the virtues of "light touch" and "limited touch" regulation in the City. Despite conceding that he has "learned lessons from what has happened in the global financial crisis", he seems largely unrepentant. "We had a dynamic financial sector and we still have a dynamic financial sector," he says, adding gruffly: "We're not anti-business."

Nor, he says, reverting to New Labour-speak, does he "tax for tax's sake - the issue is, what is the right thing to do for both backing your public services and ensuring fairness?" But, we wonder, where is the radicalism that the left expects in the wake of what many have described as "the crisis of capitalism"? Where, for example, is the action on income inequality, which is at its highest level since records began? Brown instantly and almost robotically begins listing the government's record on having "taken people out of poverty", before we interrupt: yes, but what about the gap between rich and poor? "The problem we've got is that we're dealing with a global economy," he says, irritated, refusing to engage directly with the issue. His commitment to helping the poorest in society is not in question; but his willingness to do something about the soaring excess at the top of the payscale is.

What is the Prime Minister's greatest regret of the past year or so? "I don't get into that," he says, laughing. For a man whose political prospects seem so bleak, he is keen to focus on the future rather than the past. "I think you've got to look forward rather than look back, and I think you've got to recognise that if you make mistakes, you've got to learn from them. And I've always tried to learn from what's happened."

His critics, rumoured to include the Chancellor Alistair Darling, believe his greatest mistake has been to let the Tories outmanoeuvre him on the matter of the public finances. Was he bullied into abandoning his old dividing line of "Labour investment versus Tory cuts" and finally using the "C-word" in a speech to the TUC on 15 September? Brown is dismissive: "No, we've always had a deficit reduction plan, we published it in the Budget."

Yet in June he said the idea that Labour would have to slash spending was "a myth". He told an interviewer: "Public spending will continue to rise. It's in our figures."

The Prime Minister seems to be in denial that there has been a shift in language, if not in position. He is on stronger ground, however, when he argues that "the difference between us and our opponents is they want cuts now, immediately, they want blanket cuts and they want to pay for tax cuts with public spending cuts . . . I think if the Conservatives had been in charge of the economy, we would still be in a recession . . . for months and months to come."

Under the pretext of a frenzied debate over "cuts", Brown has been subjected to personal abuse from opposition politicians as well as Tory-supporting journalists and bloggers. He is "dishonest", say the Conservatives - adding to earlier accusations (from the shadow chancellor George Osborne) that he is "autistic" and a "mad hatter". As we read out some of what has been said of him by his disparagers, he winces, trying perhaps to hide his anger. "I think people have got to take responsibility for the statements that they make [about me], and I have not tried to personalise politics in that way." He adds: "It's not the way I was brought up to behave and it's not the way I behave." (Critics might argue, however, that the same could not be said about a number of his former advisers, including Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan.)

Brown may avoid direct, personal attacks on the Tory leadership, but he strives to discredit the Conservatives' newfound "progressive" credentials. "I find it difficult to believe those people that want to call themselves progressive also want to, for example, cut inheritance tax for millionaires at the expense of ­public services; to cut educational maintenance allowances and Sure Start, and the help that is available for young people to stay on in education." He has found his voice, which grows louder as he leans forward. "You can't be progressive and want in a recession to cut help for the unemployed: it is just not possible."

But what of his own progressive credentials, and the prospects for resolving the so-called progressive dilemma of British politics? This dilemma, as depicted by the historian David Marquand, and the product of a flawed, majoritarian voting system, has prevented Labour from constructing a successful progressive coalition on the liberal-left of British politics. Will the Prime Minister, in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal and the political upheavals of 2009, now consider fulfilling New Labour's 1997 promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform? "I am prepared to consider proposals for reform, but they have got to be about fairness to the people. They cannot be based on partisan objectives, as some people have suggested, and they have got to make sure that the system as a whole is more accountable to the people."

Again and again, throughout our interview, Brown refers to the next election as being about "big choices", not the small issues, which he says the Conservatives would prefer. "What was the latest thing? The cost of food in the House of Commons?" he asks, referring to David Cameron's recent gimmicky pledge to cut public spending by reducing subsidies on MPs' food. This theme of "big choices", say Brown's aides, is one he is likely to pursue in his conference speech and beyond.

“Look, this is a 'big choice' election," he tells us. "You've got to ask yourself: which is the party that is going to lead the growth and prosperity we need to go into the future? Which is the party most likely to build a fairer and stronger society? . . . And if you ask these questions, which are questions about living standards, about people's jobs . . . they are questions about the fairness of our society."

In a sudden and belated shift in tone, compared to his earlier and warmer words about the financial sector, Brown turns against the City: "People have been shocked by the irresponsibility and the unfairness of banks - and in some cases MPs, with their expenses. So this is a progressive decade: people have progressive instincts in our country. People want to see a fairer, responsible society and we've got to show them that the policies we pursue deal with these big challenges for the future."

In a message that could be aimed as much towards his party, and his back benches, as to the country at large, he makes this appeal, ahead of conference: "So I say look at the future and look at the big picture and look at the big challenges ahead."

Gordon Brown is nothing if not resilient; he is a political survivor. Though he has been characterised in the media as timid and dithering, his desire to do the "job" remains - at this stage, at least - undiminished.

He is right to argue that the next general election will force the British public to decide between two competing and opposing visions - of how to rebuild the economy and pay down the national debt, improve public services and make Britain a fairer, progressive society. In spite of what the opposition and its supporters in the press would have us believe, voters next year will face much more than a referendum on the government.

“This will be a 'big choice' election," Brown says again, as if trialling a new slogan. "It's not going to be the small issues that other people want to be the focus of the election, and I think the country will know that by the time the election comes."

Read Mehdi Hasan's and James Macintyre's blogs at newstatesman.com/blogs