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banner Monday, 25 September, 2000, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Brown leaves question over pensions
Chancellor Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown may have averted a conference defeat
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

There was a lot riding on Gordon Brown's keynote speech at Labour conference.

He had to lift his party's flagging spirits after a series of batterings over its tax and spend policies.

He had to regain his status as the most competent man in the cabinet and the natural leader-in-waiting.

And, most important in the short term, he had to defuse the row over pensions which is threatening to escalate into the government's next major pre-election crisis.

He effortlessly pulled off the first two with a powerful performance full of Old Labour rhetoric and which even invoked the spirit of Labour's lost leader John Smith by declaring: "All we ask is a chance to serve."

After weeks of gloom, the chancellor injected a renewed hope amongst delegates desperate to hear his message.

He savaged the Tories - particularly his opposite number Michael Portillo - and he gave probably the best exposition the conference is likely to hear of Labour's achievements to date.

But he also knew that, thanks to the petrol tax crisis and the Bernie Ecclestone row, his credibility was at stake like never before and, if he did not pull it back now he may never get another chance.

Leadership style

He need not have worried. He walked not into a lions' den but a rally and was swept out on a tide of support.

Tony Blair may even have felt a twinge of foreboding as Mr Brown took encore after encore and finally brought his new wife Sarah onto the platform to share his great moment. It was all very leadership-style.

In many ways that was the easy bit. Labour conference loves Gordon Brown - they could even turn it into a badge.

He chimes with ordinary delegates far more than Tony Blair ever manages and he has a handy knack of tailoring his rhetoric to fit the occasion.

But the bigger question over pensions and fuel taxes were still going to be hugely difficult for him and a question mark remains.

He effectively told those pressing for changes that there would be something in the pre-budget statement in November. But he refused to be specific.

He refused to accept union demands for a restoration of the link with earnings.

But he promised all pensioners they would be better off after his next budget with increases more than those they would have received through the link.

Challenge looming

But he refused to say whether extra cash, over and above that already pledged, would come on the basic pension paid to everybody or as increases in other allowances, some of which are means tested.

The instant reaction from pensioners groups was not encouraging with Age Concern and former Labour minister and pensioners' campaigner Barbara Castle expressing doubts.

But some unions believed he had done enough to stop a real rebellion, with TGWU leader Bill Morris saying he thought Mr Brown had signalled there would be a big overall rise in pensions.

The proof of this particular pudding will come later in the week when there is a threatened challenge to the government over its refusal to link pensions to average earnings.

If the unions persist with the challenge and even succeed in defeating the government, then Mr Brown will have failed.

The damage will almost certainly not be as great to him personally, but it will still land the government with another major challenge.

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