Gordon Brown's Successful Debut

It is ironic that, in his first week as prime minister, the most embarrassing mistake made by the famously numerate Gordon Brown was to miscalculate the number of days he had been in charge. Asked by David Cameron at his first Prime Minister's Questions why he had not banned a particular Islamist group, Brown said: "I think the leader of the opposition forgets I've been in this job for five days."

Actually, by then he had been in No. 10 for seven days. But we always knew that the weekly ritual of Prime Minister's Questions would be a nervous chore for Brown, never a political actor or orator of Tony Blair's caliber. Much more striking was the overall success of the new P.M.'s first week. The man who was expected to be ponderous and dispiriting has been fleet of foot and sometimes dazzling.

Many predicted that Brown would have a detailed plan for his first 100 days. What he grasped was that it is the first 100 hours that really count. In his 10 years as chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown was often derided as conspiratorial, dour and unpleasant. So his first task was to shed this image. Every incoming prime minister reshuffles his cabinet, but Brown declared that his would be a "government of all the talents."

This meant promoting the Labour Party's young stars, such as David Miliband (who takes over as the youngest foreign secretary in 30 years); James Purnell, the Culture secretary, and Ed Balls, the Schools minister. It meant showing clemency to close allies of Tony Blair who had been sharply critical of Brown as chancellor, such as John Hutton. Most controversially, it meant bringing those from outside the Labor Party into government: a former Tory, Shaun Woodward, is now Northern Ireland secretary. As chancellor, Brown loved cliques and factions, not least because he was often plotting against Blair. Now he proposes to govern "inclusively," saying he has "listened and learned."

The hard part will be to translate his bounce in the polls into resilient public confidence, and to restore trust in a government tarnished by spin and the turmoil in Iraq. There was deep symbolism, therefore, in Brown's decision to make constitutional reforms his first major policy announcement, designed to bolster the accountability of the executive, strengthen Parliament and end what became known under Blair as "sofa government"—government by a gang sitting in the prime minister's den.

Indeed, in his first crucial hours, Brown's most important message to the public was: I am not Blair. The word "change" featured eight times in his brief statement outside No. 10 on the day he became prime minister. He declared himself to be the "change" candidate in the next general election.

This is a remarkably audacious strategy, not least because Brown has been an M.P. for 23 years and was chancellor for 10. His face is very familiar, and he has never engaged public affections as Blair did in his first spell as P.M. Worse, Brown is up against a youthful, modernizing Tory leader in Cameron, who cycles to work at the House of Commons, speaks knowledgeably about his iPod and has put fashionable greenery at the heart of Conservative policy.

Yet if Brown can caricature Cameron as just a pale imitation of Blair—Tony's Mini-Me—he can also, he believes, present the Tory leader as outdated. Brown's camp argues that Cameron, with his Blairesque charisma and relaxed manner, would have been a plausible leader in 1997 but is ill equipped for the tough challenges of 2007: terrorism, globalization, international crime, unprecedented population mobility. In crude terms, the new P.M.'s sell is: don't send a boy to do a man's job.

In this respect, the Islamist car-bomb plot, uncovered less than 48 hours after Brown became P.M., enabled him to showcase his greatest strengths. Blair was defined by his response to the death of Diana and the trembling lip that accompanied his encomium to the "people's princess." For many voters, Brown will already have been defined as the new P.M. who held his nerve and spoke with quiet poise as the police were still inspecting the propane tanks and fuel canisters that had packed the cars.

A sea of troubles lies ahead: disengagement from Iraq, the demands for a referendum on the latest European treaty, ID cards, the rise of English nationalism, and the landscape of welfare dependency and social breakdown the Tories aptly call Britain's "broken society." All these and many other issues will bedevil Brown. Yet whatever is said of him in the months ahead, and whatever electoral fate ultimately awaits him, in his first week he unquestionably looked and sounded like the prime minister of the country he has yearned to lead for so long.