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DateLine Sunday, 30 September 2007

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Gordon Brown targets Tory heartlands

Gordon Brown attempted to stamp his authority on the British political landscape as he styled himself as the true champion of Conservative values.In a naked attempt to steal voters from David Cameron, the Prime Minister used a blue backdrop to make a series of policy announcements aimed directly at the Tory heartland.

Setting out a manifesto he hopes will deliver another Labour landslide, Mr Brown offered his own solutions to gun crime, hospital superbugs and police bureaucracy in a patriotic speech that mentioned "British" or "Britishness" 71 times.

Amid growing calls for an early election, he also offered to review 24-hour drinking, one of a series of measures designed to undercut Mr Cameron's own policies, while pointedly failing to mention the Tory leader once.

In a relaxed performance that lasted for more than an hour, Mr Brown spoke repeatedly of "aspiration" and appealed to hard-working families who want to defend traditional British values, regardless of the party they voted for in the past.

In addition, he echoed Margaret Thatcher when he declared himself a "conviction politician".

Mr Brown's strategy to woo "Blue Brownites" is an attempt to capitalise on recent criticism of Mr Cameron, who has angered party traditionalists with his refusal to promise tax cuts and his desire to move away from hardline policies on crime and immigration.

Afterwards, aides made clear Mr Brown's rapturously received speech - his first as party leader - was designed to appeal over the heads of the Labour delegates to the country at large, as the Prime Minister waits until after this week's conference to decide whether to go for a snap election on October 25 or November 1.

His refusal to talk about Mr Cameron was designed to show that Mr Brown considers himself a national leader above party politics. He has already wooed members of the Tory party into his administration and he said yesterday that his aim was not just to "occupy the centre ground but to shape it and expand it".

While the NHS, education and crime dominated the speech, Mr Brown made a number of references to his own personal history, but he reserved his strongest language for his attempts to cross the political divide and win the support of Tory voters.

In his final rallying call he said: "So this is my pledge to the British people: I will not let you down. I will stand up for our schools and our hospitals. I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you."

Evoking his religious upbringing, Mr Brown challenged Tory plans for family support, which will offer tax perks for only married couples.

He said: "We all remember that biblical saying: 'Suffer the little children and come unto me.' No Bible I have ever read says: 'Just bring me some of the children.'"

And, in a direct appeal to non-Labour voters, he added: "I reach out to all those who work hard and play by the rules, who believe in strong families and a patriotic Britain, who may have supported other parties but who, like me, want to defend and advance British values and our way of life."

Last night the mood among delegates and MPs was that they were primed for an election, although Mr Brown made no mention of a possible poll and refused to answer questions on the subject in interviews ahead of the speech.

To rub salt into Tory wounds, Labour paraded two "Tory turncoats" at the conference before Mr Brown took to the stage.

Quentin Davies, who crossed the floor soon after Mr Brown became Prime Minister, received a standing ovation for his speech. Earlier Shaun Woodward, who defected in 1999 and is now Northern Ireland Secretary, also made a speech to delegates.

The Prime Minister used the speech to set out his personal credo. "I am proud to be British. I believe in values.

My father and mother taught me about family and the great virtues of hard work, doing your duty and always trying to do the right thing."

His speech was laced with repeated references to Britain and Britishness. In an attempt to stake out traditional Tory ground, he talked again about "British jobs for British workers".

Mr Brown announced that any "newcomers to Britain who were caught selling drugs or using guns will be thrown out".

He pointed out that "two thirds of deaths from gun crime occur in just four cities" and vowed to give the police the support to crack down on gun crime. And in a pointed rebuff to Mr Cameron he denied Britain was a "broken society".

And he said he would cut police bureaucracy by issuing 10,000 hand-held computers to officers to deal with crimes while staying on the beat.

Last night Mr Cameron said: "After that uninspiring speech, it's clear that Gordon Brown has no answers to Britain's problems.

"The Conservatives do, and that is why we have already called for a general election and continue to do so. We are ready and waiting."

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