Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

The real debate will be the identity of Brown's deputy
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The Independent Online

The Liberal Democrat leadership race is more surrogate. Charles Kennedy did just enough in Blackpool to stave off his critics. But he is still on probation.

As for Labour, the contest to take over from Tony Blair is over. Gordon Brown may face a kamikaze challenge from the hard left, but would still win more than 90 per cent of the votes. The significant development over the summer is that the Blairites have given up hope of finding a "stop Brown" candidate. They are now trying to preserve their influence under a Brown regime. That is why Charles Clarke and Tessa Jowell accepted that a Brown succession is inevitable.

However, there will be a meaningful election when Mr Blair steps down. John Prescott will almost certainly go at the same time, so there will be a vacancy for deputy leader. This has not been regarded as an important post, but with Mr Brown a shoo-in as leader, several ministers are weighing up their prospects. They will start to set out their stall in the coming week and press the flesh with delegateswith a twinkle in their eye.

There is pressure to turn the deputy leadership contest into a debate on how to revive a moribund party whose membership has halved to 200,000 in the past five years and which has little influence when Labour is in power. "As the deputy leadership is going to be more intensely contested than the leadership itself, this is what that debate should be about," said Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society.

There is no shortage of candidates who fancy the title of Deputy Prime Minister. Jack Straw has formed a close working relationship with Mr Brown. Although involved in the decision to go to war in Iraq, we have learnt enough about the Foreign Secretary's doubts. It was "Tony's war", after all.

David Blunkett, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who has mended broken fences with the Chancellor, would also like the job, although his painful exit from the Home Office may have harmed his chances. Mr Clarke, having virtually ruled himself out of the leadership race, would be a strong candidate.

The deputy leader will be chosen by an electoral college in which Labour MPs, party members and trade unions each have a third of the votes.

Two former union officials now in the Cabinet are well-placed to pick up union votes. Alan Johnson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, has an interesting life story as a postman who rose to become the minister responsible for the Royal Mail. Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary probably spends as much time talking to trade unionists as Ulster Unionists.

There is much gossip in Labour circles about who Mr Brown would want as his deputy. Mr Straw's friends say he would fit the bill because he would have no ambition to become Prime Minister.

Mr Brown would not want a Scot as his number two. There is speculation that he would like a woman deputy to ensure a balanced ticket. Patricia Hewitt, Tessa Jowell and Harriet Harman are all potential runners. Of course, everyone wants a balanced ticket that would suit their purposes. Blairites argue that Mr Clarke, Ms Hewitt and Ms Jowell would play well in Middle Britain, where Mr Brown might have less appeal than Mr Blair. Others claim Mr Hain would win back the progressive voters who deserted Labour at this year's election, while Mr Johnson would reassure the working classes.

There is an interesting sub-plot to the early skirmishes in the deputy leadership battle. Blairites are anxious to ensure that Labour continues to occupy the political centre ground. They accuse some Brownites of wanting to target the progressives who voted Liberal Democrat in May, warning that this would end in tears because the crucial battleground is between Labour and the Tories. Brownites insist they can do both.

This tussle between the Blairites and Brownites is being conducted in code rather than the open warfare we have seen in the past. The Brighton conference may be rather bland as a result. The "permanent change" mantra is hardly new. "He's been making the same conference speech for 12 years," one Blair ally admitted, before adding loyally: "Of course, he's right." Labour's might well be the least exciting of the three main party conferences this year. But when it comes, the deputy leadership contest will send an important signal about the party's future direction.