Brown's Faith in the Future Built on Unsteady Domestic Footings

Fleet Street was awash with a mix of uncertainty and glee on the eve of Gordon Brown's visit to the US this week. The austere welcome promised by President Obama stoked Britain's ambiguous sensitivities about the "special relationship", ignoring the practical realities of a severe East Coast snowstorm and global economic meltdown. If the Prime Minister looked out of the window as he crossed the Atlantic he may well have seen the cloud of doom over his premiership darkening.

As Brown began the fifth speech by a British Prime Minister to Congress, one could hear the sound of pens being sharpened in preparation for the fall. Brown had looked ill at ease with the President compared to either Blair or Thatcher before him. The first third of the speech was an embarrassing overture to Americana. Laced with history, infusing the special relationship and bestowing the honour of a knighthood on [Sir] Ted Kennedy, Brown primed his audience in the only way a lap dog knows how: with unbridled respect and devotion.

The last Prime Minister to address Congress was of course Tony Blair. Brown added to Blair's arsenal of oratory, however, a sense of purpose, a Glaswegian growl to the lap dog's yelp and a hint that there may be a pack of similar animals waiting around the corner with his mention of a united Europe.

His speech was effective, yet will be criticised at home for its more glitzy turns. Brown has portrayed himself at home as the stoic leader needed for tough times. Billboards have proclaimed him as "not Flash, just Gordon". But the oratorical turns in his half hour before Congress will have opponents dancing in the Halls of Westminster in memory of his famous gaffe on the floor of the Commons about saving the world.

The message of Brown's speech quickly transformed from lap-dog barking to the international statesman talking sense. His message was a call to America to accept the global reality of the economic crisis. Although it was high on idea and low on substance, it included key messages of Brown's politics - especially education.

Although he has come from what appears a no win situation domestically, Brown talked repeatedly of his faith in the future. The response to this was mixed, both across the speech and across the floor of Congress, many of his points were well received.

In what future does Brown actually have faith?

Domestically, David Cameron's position across the floor of the Commons is strengthened with every lost job and every empty shop window on the High Street. Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the boom years and must carry that burden in these tough times. When he calls an election, his position as an international statesman will curry little favour in ballot boxes being ticked by increasing numbers of the unemployed. Faith in the future of his domestic premiership looks misplaced at present.

The long term visions which Brown mapped out require serious leaps of faith in these hard times. One finds it difficult to believe that Brown's attitude is that of the man who plants the seed of a tree, the shade of which he will never see, despite the long term challenges he focused on in his speech. The placid response of Congress to his rally against protectionism should certainly temper any fervent faith in that future.

The future which Brown talked of is, in fact, much closer. Brown was laying the foundations for April's G20 in London. His centre-left economic message was directed entirely at this key summit which could prepare the ground for a domestic political resurgence, or light up the path he has envisioned out of this global economic funk. But on the grand stage in the Capitol, Brown's vision was painted in broad strokes, its details still unclear.

Whatever faith Brown was showing, the domestic response to Brown's speech will be at once more extensive and more ambiguous than any international response. Brown carries the mantle of a fallen empire with delusions of grandeur down a path trodden by sycophants before him, with a domestic cloud of doom hanging over his head. The sometimes enthusiastic applause of Congress will do little to alleviate these domestic burdens while the size of the economic task belittles any grand oratory dedicated to battling it.

Nevertheless, the speech before Congress was one of the most important and impressive of his political career. Whether his star turn comes close to saving Gordon at the polls at home is almost as unclear as the path he has mapped out of the current global crisis.