IN the long history of British political conferences, seldom has a party leader faced a more difficult task than the one faced by Tory leader David Cameron this week in Blackpool.
With the polls showing Labour up to 11 points in the lead and speculation about a snap election reaching near-boiling point, Mr Cameron somehow needed to convince Gordon Brown to hold off from going to the country.
For sheer brinkmanship, the Tory leader’s call for the Prime Minister to “bring it on” is not quite up there with “Go ahead, punk, make my day” – but it’s not far off.
Will Gordon call his bluff?
We will know soon enough – but if Mr Cameron has managed to persuade him to think twice, it will go down as one of the greatest acts of political escapology in modern times.
For make no mistake, whatever Mr Cameron may say in public, he and his party do not want an election on November 1 or 8 – or indeed at any point until next spring at the earliest.
There may still be very real doubt over whether an election held now would enable Mr Brown to increase Labour’s majority, which as I have argued all along, should be the determining factor for him on whether to hold one.
But of one thing there is very little doubt – that if an election were held now, the Conservatives would not win it. Under our skewed electoral system, they need to be 8-10 points ahead of Labour – as they were before Mr Brown took over – before they can even think of securing an overall majority.
So Mr Cameron’s principal aim throughout this conference week has been to buy time – time to enable him to get his party’s policies in order, time to allow the Brown Bounce to wear off.
Yesterday morning’s polls, most showing Labour’s lead has fallen sharply to around 3%-4%, certainly suggest he might have done enough.
Mr Brown and his closest aides are expected to make a final decision over the course of this weekend, but any sensible reading of the situation would suggest the polls are far too volatile for him to risk it.
This is no more than is to be expected. The wiser heads among the political commentariat have long been arguing that you need three or four weeks after the end of the conference season for public opinion to settle down.
So if Mr Cameron has indeed succeeded in postponing the election, how did he do it? Well, with a mixture of skilful party management, sheer oratorical bravura – and a single very clever policy initiative.
The Tories arrived in Blackpool in a state of some chaos, with policy commissions busily contradicting each other and Old Right figures such as Lord Tebbit comparing Mr Cameron unfavourably to Mr Brown.
To have managed to impose some discipline on that rabble, while also extracting some sort of coherent programme from the welter of new policy ideas, was no mean feat.
It does not mean the Tories are necessarily ready for government, but they at least looked united and sensible, two of the key prerequisites for a party wishing to be taken seriously by the voters.
As for Mr Cameron’s keynote speech on Wednesday, he showed again that in terms of personal charisma, he is streets ahead of anyone currently operating in British politics.
But for the first time, I think he also demonstrated that there might be more to him than just a slick PR man.
I particularly liked the way he tackled head-on the “Tory toff” jibes about his upbringing, saying that it was because he had such a “fantastic” education that he wanted the same for all children.
The note of optimism – “you can get it if you really want it” – may have seemed clichéd to some, but is very necessary in a political culture that is becoming corroded by cynicism.
But it was not Mr Cameron who unveiled the most significant policy initiative in Blackpool. That came in the week’s other big speech, from the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne on Monday.
However much Labour may quibble about how it is to be paid for, his announcement that a Conservative government would raise the threshold of inheritance tax to £1m is a surefire vote winner – and Mr Brown knows it.
As I have noted previously, the rise in house prices and consequent increase in the value of estates have turned this into a grossly unfair tax that now affects a large number of ordinary families.
If the Tories really have turned the polls around this week, I believe it was this, more than Mr Cameron’s speech, which will have really forced the voters to sit up and take notice.
So where to from here? Well, it’s been an inconclusive conference season in my view, with no clear winners and, with the possible exception of Sir Menzies Campbell, no clear losers.
That seems to suggest to me that the time is not right for the country to make an informed choice about who governs it for the next five years.
Sure, Gordon Brown has made a good start as Prime Minister, dealing capably with a series of crises and commanding the centre ground, but it is still too early to make a real assessment of his performance in the job.
In particular, we need to see if the man who announced an Iraq troop withdrawal in a bid to disrupt the Tory conference really can live up to his promises of “new politics” and an end to spin.
As for David Cameron, the noted commentator Simon Jenkins wrote on Thursday that he looks like a man who will be Prime Minister one day – but not yet. I would go along with that.
His modernisation programme is still only half-complete and we need to see if he can follow-up the initiative on inheritance tax with other concrete and coherent policy pledges.
Speaking both as a commentator and as a voter, I hope we will be given the time we need to see how these two men continue to perform in their respective roles before being forced to choose between them.
But will we get it? Only one of them knows the answer to that.