Economy the focus of British parties' conferences

Gordon Brown positions himself as the experienced money manager

The great British political circus heads for Birmingham—the Venice of the UK, don't you know—for the final of the major parties' conferences this weekend. And there's a late addition to the schedule for Day One of the Conservative gathering on Sunday: a major, special session on the economy.

Yes, it's the economy that looms large in politics in Britain, as it does in most of the western world. And the economy was the remit for the now prime minister, Gordon Brown, for 10 years before he took over from Tony Blair. Having been chancellor of the exchequer (ie. treasuary secretary, ie. finance minister) for the decade before the economic wheels started to wobble, it's no surprise he's come in for such criticism over recent months (a host of other cock-ups haven’t helped).

Here's the odd thing, though: when the wheels started to look like falling off the cart altogether last week, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, plunging bank stocks and general crises of financial confidence, all of a sudden he started to look more, well, prime ministerial. He cracked down on short sellers, he suspended competition requirements to enable a takeover that salvaged Britain's biggest mortgage lender, he sounded like he knew what things like collateralised debt obligations were. Brown and his Sam-the-Eagle-alike chancellor Alistair Darling cast themselves as the serious men for a serious crisis, in stark contrast to their pipsqueak Tory counterparts.

Brown tried to hammer that impression home in his well received conference speech on Tuesday. The chief theme was fairness, there was a pledge to push for international financial regulation, and the killer line: "I'm all in favour of apprenticeships, but I can tell you this is no time for a novice." On the surface the novice alluded to was George Osborne, the Tories' shadow chancellor, but, to the glee of the press pack, it could also be taken as a sideswipe at David Miliband. The sprightly foreign secretary, Miliband has been widely regarded as the likeliest challenger to Brown's throne since he penned a hugely controversial comment piece in the Guardian a couple of months ago.

Brown's speech was far and away the liveliest thing in the main conference hall in Manchester. Things are usually bubblier in the bulging fringe programme—where David Miliband was a very busy man indeed—but even there things were leaden for the most part. A trickle of middle-ranking MPs had called for a leadership contest in the lead-up to the conference, and Labour politicians were careful to avoid letting anything slip that might have the whiff of rebellion.

The most energised event I attended on the fringe was a debate to nominate Labour's greatest hero. The enthusiasm in the room from the party faithful was as sunny as the Manchester skies—it seemed a great relief to be talking proudly about Labour's heritage, rather than cagily about its present. It also, I think, reflects another kind of relief. The New Labour project, which came to fruition with Tony Blair's sweeping 1997 victory, demanded a repudiation of a bunch of "old" Labour ideas, high taxation, trade union muscle, that sort of thing. It became almost unfashionable to invoke the past—it was there in the name: New Labour. A necessary process, but at its worst it encouraged a kind of adolescent embarrassment of being seen with one's parents. The heroes fringe debate—the room ended up putting Keir Hardie, the party's MP, first, by the way—was full of pride in parentage.

But back to 2008 and it's inescapably the economy, stupid. The Labour leadership's response to the crisis, together with Brown's confident conference speech, delivered a welcome poll result this morning in the Sun, which saw the Tory lead cut in half to 10 per cent. Labour-loyal optimists are delighted that the Conservative response has been so lame to date. The opposition look hamstrung by their inexperience, by their aversion to market regulation, their attachment to laissez-faire.

But the crucial polls for Brown, who jetted off from Manchester to the UN in New York last night, will come after the Tories have done their thing in Birmingham next week. Before then David Cameron and Co will do their best to point out the human costs of Labour's financial mismanagement. They will attempt to put forward the notion that a "plan for a strong economy will help ease the pain of the downturn", as the blurb for that freshly scheduled session has it. And, most powerfully of all, they will bang on mercilessly about Chancellor Gordon Brown's promise, declared numerously (The Times tallies 30 occasions by him and a host of other New Labour cohorts), that he would bring an end, forever, to the days of boom and bust.