Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

This time it is Brown who needs speech of his life
Click to follow

"Going is the most difficult thing to do in politics. Too many people stay for too long," Tony Blair told Paddy Ashdown in a prophetic conversation in 1999 recorded in the former Liberal Democrat leader's diaries. "I would rather stop when people said, 'Why is he going?' than when they said, 'Why isn't he going?' Or, even worse, 'When is he going?'."

So, what better moment to go than when Mr Blair addresses Labour's annual conference for the 13th and last time as party leader on Tuesday? It could easily be his last opportunity to bow out on a high. If he said he was quitting immediately, or announced a date, he would get a rapturous reception, uniting his Labour friends and foes at a stroke.

There are precious few potential "highs" in his diary. Pulling our troops out of Iraq? Forget it. A breakthrough on Northern Ireland next month? Too risky to count on. In any case, restoring the province's assembly and executive would not make the difference between war and peace.

Some of my friends are convinced that Mr Blair is going to drop a bombshell on Tuesday - just as he did in his first conference speech as leader, when he announced (sotto voce) his intention to bury Labour's Clause IV commitment to public ownership. The media have been busy updating their political obituaries, just in case.

I suspect we will have to wait a bit longer. Like a boxer wanting one more fight, Mr Blair remains intent on a long goodbye that will take him into next year, possibly until after the May elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils.

His refusal to talk dates at the Manchester conference will disappoint many Labour MPs, who will press him to be specific when Parliament returns next month.

First, he has got to survive a testing conference. The build-up has been terrible: an attempted coup by supporters of Gordon Brown two weeks ago. Although there is a fragile truce between Mr Blair and Mr Brown, the Prime Minister remains badly bruised by their last fight.

That is partly why he is in no rush to name the day or to endorse Mr Brown as his favoured successor. Such an endorsement may well come later - but not now. The Blairites want Mr Brown to know they are watching his every move, to see how much of the much-vaunted "Blair agenda" he accepts. That is why they raise the prospect of a cabinet-level candidate standing against him, though I still doubt it will happen.

There is a paradox about this Labour conference: the run-up has been so bad that this might enable the party to avoid the predicted bloodbath. We might escape the "TB-GB" ritual at the last three Labour conferences: coded criticism by Mr Brown in his speech on the Monday as he stakes out his slightly different agenda, and an "I'm in charge" rebuke from Mr Blair when he addresses delegates the following day. I suspect that a mutual desire to draw back from the abyss over which they hung so perilously a fortnight ago will result in the two men showering praise rather than bullets on each other over the next few days.

However, it will be much harder for Mr Blair to achieve his second goal. He told the Cabinet on Wednesday that Labour must use the conference to "reconnect" with the public and demanded a "self-denying ordinance" over the looming leadership and deputy leadership contests. When I heard about this, I thought instantly of Basil Fawlty saying "don't mention the war". The idea that Labour ministers, MPs, trade unions and grassroots delegates will not discuss the succession as they spend almost a week in a goldfish bowl is utterly ludicrous. Of course they will.

There is one crumb of comfort for Mr Blair: although he faces a difficult conference, then Mr Brown's task is much, much harder. This year, it is the Chancellor, not the Prime Minister who needs to make the speech of his life.

The alleged coup has put the spotlight on Mr Brown's character as well as his policies. His opinion poll ratings are sliding and some Labour MPs, jittery about holding their seats, are wondering whether the party should look elsewhere for a new leader.

The Chancellor has to strike an incredibly difficult balance. If he doesn't praise the Prime Minister, he will be accused of disloyalty. But he also needs to start mapping out his own agenda. The polls show that the voters want a fresh start, not a Blair Government by other means.

But Mr Brown is worried that, if he reveals how he would be different, the ultra-Blairites will attack him - even though the same people have been prodding him to join a debate about Labour's future. Sometimes he feels he can't win, and with reason. In his speech, he will attempt to offer both continuity and change - a foretaste of what he would have to do at the next general election.

Allies say that Mr Brown is not demanding an immediate endorsement from Mr Blair. But there is no doubt that the balance of power in the relationship which dominates British politics has changed. "For once, he needs us more than we need him," one Blair ally told me rather gleefully. For the first time, more heat is on Mr Brown than Mr Blair. By Monday lunchtime, we will have a good idea of whether he can stand it.