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Gordon Brown: We can win without the Sun

30th September 2009

Prime minister says paper's readers agree with his election drive to fight on the side of 'squeezed middle classes'

Gordon Brown has said the British people, not the Sun newspaper, will decide the outcome of the general election after Rupert Murdoch's flagship newspaper delivered a psychological blow to Labour today by declaring it is backing the Tories.

The Sun announced its move in a front-page editorial that hit the streets only hours after Brown made a bid in his conference speech to inject self-belief back into his party, vowing to fight the election on the side of "squeezed middle classes".

In an interview on GMTV this morning, the prime minister sought to play down the decision by the paper that demonised Labour in the 1980s but dramatically switched allegiance before the 1997 election.

"It's the British people that decide elections. It's the British people that I'm interested in and it's the British people that I was talking about yesterday," he said.

"I think that Sun readers actually, when they look at what I said, will agree with what I said.

"Newspapers are entitled to their opinions. Obviously you want newspapers to be for you. But I've got an old-fashioned view. You look to newspapers for news, not propaganda. I don't think editorials will decide elections."

Although the electoral impact of the Sun's decision may turn out to be marginal, the paper's declaration will damage Labour's morale because it undermines the efforts made by Brown and his team to persuade the party it has a chance of winning.

Yesterday, Brown told the country: "We are not done yet," and urged his party: "Now is not the time to give in, but to reach inside ourselves for the strength of our convictions."

The prime minister will have hoped the speech, unusually rich in policy detail, finally puts paid to any leadership challenge before the next election – and translates into a lift in the polls that will stop Labour MPs panicking as the parties enter the new year.

Rejecting the claim that after 12 years in power the government is exhausted, he offered an array of social reforms designed to appeal to middle Britain, ranging from a right for voters to recall errant MPs to free personal care for some elderly people, a crackdown on 24-hour drinking and supervised state hostels for teenage mothers.

He came out personally in favour of electoral reform for the first time, but angered campaigners by promising only that the Labour manifesto would contain a commitment to hold a referendum on the issue after the election – the minimalist option facing the cabinet.

Treasury sources emphasised that Brown had, in negotiations before the speech, agreed not to make any pledges that would entail a net increase in government spending, even though he promised he would protect the schools budget and enshrine in law the government commitment to lift the international aid budget to 0.7% of GDP.

Sceptical backbench Labour MPs doubted whether the speech would change the party's fortunes, with the leading rebel Barry Sheerman saying it would be impossible to tell how the British people viewed Brown until "the dust has settled in two weeks' time". But cabinet colleagues, including the home secretary, Alan Johnson, repeatedly rallied to the prime minister.

Johnson said: "Anyone who thought that we were on our knees, anyone who thought that we had given up and were prepared to just drift out of power know quite clearly now that we are not – it's game on." Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB Union, said: "This was the speech of a prime minister who intends to take the fight to the Tories. As he said, he is not done yet."

Brown, who was introduced by his wife Sarah as her "hero", launched into his speech with a roll call of Labour achievements over the last decade, before taking the political risk of acknowledging the deep "sense of unease" prevalent in Britain. He admitted "the decent hard-working majority feel the odds are stacked in favour of a minority who will talk about their rights, but never accept their responsibilities.

"I stand with the people who are sick and tired of others playing by different rules, or no rules at all."

In his most controversial move, reminiscent of high Blairism, he said: "It is time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. It cannot be right for a girl of 16 to get pregnant, be given the key to a council flat and be left on their own."

In a move condemned by pressure groups, all 16 and 17-year-old single mothers seeking social housing would in future be required to live in hostels if they were not living with their own parents.

Brown made a sharp U-turn by announcing councils would be given the power to end 24-hour drinking in large areas, rather than in specific clubs and pubs. He admitted "no one has yet cracked the whole problem of a youth drinking culture" and conceded extended drinking had not made city centres easier to police.

He promised the most needy elderly would be given free social care in their own homes, abolishing the means test on care at home for 350,000 pensioners. The £400m cost would be funded through cuts in council and health department marketing budgets.

In what his aides cited as a classic example of the tough choices being taken by the government, Brown announced he was phasing out badly targeted tax relief on employer-supported childcare, costing £500m, in order to fund 10 hours' free childcare a week for 250,000 two-year-olds in poorer communities.

The loudest cheer of the conference came when he announced no compulsory ID cards for British citizens in the next parliament and a draft bill to abolish an unelected Lords before the election. He pledged support for the alternative vote so that all MPs are elected with the backing of more than half their voters. Constituents would be given a right to recall corrupt MPs when parliamentary authorities failed to discipline them.

He said it was his task as the product of "an ordinary family in an ordinary town" to reimpose the values of middle Britain on reckless bankers and tearaway teenagers. "Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; these are the values of the mainstream majority, the anchor of Britain's families, the best instincts of the British people," he said.

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