To silence his enemies, Gordon Brown should call an early election

Gordon Brown had two tasks at the Labour conference: to make it harder for his enemies to mount a credible challenge against him, and to make it easier for the British public to imagine him as their leader.

Amid all the talk of betrayal (indulged in by both sides fairly equally over the years), Brown needed to rise above the fray, to demonstrate that his would be a collegiate government. He has taken the first steps in that process, but will have to do far more, particularly when he produces new policy. It was heartening at fringe meetings to hear cabinet ministers criticise the Chancellor's attempts this year to endorse, by stealth, the next stage of the Trident nuclear programme. That is not the way to conduct the "new politics" he professes. One can only hope that he is learning.

Tony Blair also had two tasks: to reconcile himself to a Brown succession, and to leave his last party stage with dignity. At least, these are the tasks he should have set himself. The conventional wisdom is that Brown's address was lacklustre and Blair's was visionary. In one respect, that is true. The Chancellor felt that if he declared his hand too passionately in his address he would fuel another bout of infighting. Little did he know that the Prime Minister's wife would do just that, undermining Brown's speech with her verbal indiscretions.

Nevertheless, Brown could and should have been more upbeat. One wonders if he is receiving the best advice. Indeed, it has been a constant refrain of the NS's critique of Brown that he fails to use the opportunities offered to set out a genuinely radical vision. It is no good talking of holding back his best lines for the moment the contest begins. The Blairites are scouring furiously for an alternative candidate. Their two remaining options are John Reid and Alan Johnson. Neither fits the bill, but one will have to do.

Talk of a truce is spurious. Blairites are gorging on Brown's discomfort. Each negative development for the Chancellor - such as Newsnight's focus group in which he came out worse than Reid and five other hopefuls - is seized on with alacrity.

The Prime Minister's true task in Manchester was this: to make the party regret his departure, and to push into the body politic the notion that his long-time rival does not have what it takes. Early reaction to Blair's speech suggests he has succeeded spectacularly in the former and appears to be doing quite well in the latter.

Initial assessments of conference performances, with their emphasis on rhetoric and razzmatazz, tend to be overtaken by the more mundane requirements of politics. Having bidden farewell to his party and, in effect, the country, Blair will struggle to remind his ministers that he remains in charge. His self-confidence has rarely been the question - indeed, his proclamation that he would single-handedly rid the Middle East of its woes was vintage hubris. His assertion that terrorism had not been fuelled by foreign policy was shattered within hours by publication of a US intelligence report that demonstrated the reverse.

It seems, therefore, that Blair will go on for several months more. Brown cannot sit on his hands. The contest is on.

But even if he wins comfortably, as must still be the overwhelming assumption, and even if the contest is largely dignified, Brown will face extremely tough obstacles at each step of the way. He needs to demonstrate his political and democratic legitimacy; he needs to show that he is the best man to take on David Cameron and expose as a sham the new cuddly image of the Conservatives (see Iain Dale, page ten).

Most of all, Brown needs to silence his enemies within. That is why he would be advised to call an early general election, shortly after taking office. With the polls as they are, it is a risky strategy, but the alternatives are worse. He and his government would need a fresh mandate and momentum. And there would be no other way to tie in the ultra-Blairites, force them to show loyalty, make them decide whether they regard Brown or Cameron as the best bet to take Britain forward.

One suspects some of them remain unsure, present leader included.

Far from the madding crowd

Imagine for a moment that the National Trust goes ahead with its idea of renting out Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset, where he was born and wrote several of his great works. And imagine that you and your beloved are the first holiday tenants, moving in for a fortnight some time over the winter. What, in the spirit of the writer, should you expect?

You should take great care, for one thing, lest all your possessions fall off a cliff or go up in smoke (Far From the Madding Crowd). It might be wise, too, to lay off drink, in case you wake to find you have sold your partner, thus blighting the remainder of your life to the point where at your death your only wish is to be forgotten (The Mayor of Casterbridge). On no account should you contact relatives in the area, for the results will be unhappy affairs, unwanted pregnancies and degradation ending at the gallows (Tess of the d'Urbervilles). Resist the temptation to read improving literature: adultery, eviction, child killing, betrayal and fatal illness will inevitably follow (Jude the Obscure). Show no interest in the marital arrangements of the locals, as this will cause death by drowning, and avoid the heath, where a deadly adder lies in wait for you (Return of the Native).

In Hardy's Wessex, the dangers are certainly extreme and life, even at its best, is neither fair nor forgiving. The cottage at Higher Brockhampton may be pretty, but how good is your insurance?

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act