Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

This will be Labour's 'Not Blair Party' conference
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The Independent Online

When Gordon Brown addresses the Labour conference on Monday, Tony Blair will be in New York, where he has meetings in his role as a Middle East peace envoy in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly.

It is a happy coincidence for both men, and a fair bet that if Mr Blair did not have a real reason not to be in Bournemouth, he would have found one. He is relishing his new job, however high the hurdles in front of him. Unlike Mr Brown's new friend, Margaret Thatcher, he quickly found a purpose to life after Downing Street. He has moved on.

Well, almost. On Monday, Mr Blair moved back to Number 10 for an hour-long meeting with his successor. It was mainly about the Middle East but inevitably strayed into domestic politics.The friends-turned-rivals have become friends again, the tensions caused by Mr Brown's frustrating wait for the succession finally lifted.

Mr Blair's absence from Bournemouth will make it a very different Labour conference. For years, we commentators have worked ourselves into a frenzy of excitement by comparing Mr Brown's leader-in-waiting speech on Monday with Mr Blair's normally successful attempt to trump him in his "I'm still the leader" address the following day.

This year, Mr Brown will speak on Monday but there will be no counterpoint, let alone a rival leader in sight. Cabinet ministers have been told to limit their speeches to seven minutes, which has provoked grumbling from the likes of Alistair Darling and David Miliband.

Although the Prime Minister will do a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, some ministers fear the event might be a bit low-key after the leader's speech.

If that is so, Mr Brown won't lose sleep. He wants the event to be business-like and serious, in keeping with the way he has run the Government since June.

So there will be no razzmatazz, no triumphant entry as Mr Brown arrives at the podium like any other speaker. The conference slogan, "New Labour for Britain", is deliberately bland. The emphasis will be on health, education and crime. Foreign affairs will be played down, with no star speaker from overseas in a break with recent tradition. You could almost call it the annual conference of the Not Blair Party.

That, too, would be consistent with Mr Brown's premiership, in which he has repeatedly promised "change" to try to convince voters they have had a change of government and don't therefore need to change the governing party. Mr Blair is irritated by all the talk of change, since he doesn't see much evidence the man who opposed some of his key reforms is changing them much. A tweak on cannabis and casinos hardly amounts to a policy revolution. He worries that banging on about change in itself will not fool the the voters, who know they have had a Labour Government for the past 10 years. The Brownites insist that new policies will be announced by ministers in Bournemouth.

The small band of hardline Blairites who have not yet become full members of Gordon's fan club are irritated at what they call "the dumping on Tony" by Brownites who speak of "change for the better" and the need to "rebuild trust". Some warn of a Blairite backlash if the dumping goes on.

I doubt it will happen. Mr Brown holds all the cards, not least the fact that the conference will have a pre-election feel, which is always good for internal discipline.

It will probably be the last Labour conference before the general election, which I suspect will come either next month or next May.

The Prime Minister will keep us guessing next week. When the Cabinet met on Wednesday to discuss the conference, the timing of the election was the elephant in the room. It was the in-joke of the day for ministers to speak about "the election, whenever it comes". They left with the impression that a snap election is still very possible.

Mr Brown will have to make up his mind soon after the Labour conference to call one on 25 October, just before the clocks go back and make it even harder to persuade people to go out to vote in the evening. One powerful argument in the Brown inner circle against calling Britain's first autumn election since 1974 is a fear that Labour would find it more difficult to get out its vote out in October than next May because of the dark evenings. It may yet prove the crucial factor which persuades Mr Brown to wait.

But there are plenty of arguments pointing the other way. The polls look good for Mr Brown, though he would be well advised to wait as long as possible to see whether the Northern Rock crisis has dented Labour's economic credibility. Initial surveys suggest not, but sometimes there is a time lag.

The most powerful argument for holding an election next month is the state of the Conservative Party. Of course, Mr Brown couldn't say that if he calls one: his reason for going now would be that he needs a personal mandate.

Whatever he decides, the fact that a snap election is a real option shows that the Prime Minister is in a remarkably strong position. What may look like a one-man show in Bournemouth will remind us how much Mr Brown dominates his party, the Government and British politics as a whole.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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