Tony Blair addresses his party conference today in conditions not wholly different from those besetting Harold Wilson in 1968. The then Labour prime minister's credibility had been deeply undermined by a single event. Talk that the Prime Minister could be replaced by his Chancellor, a man conveniently untainted by the damaging event, reached something of a crescendo. So much so that Mr Wilson felt obliged to respond to it with one of his famous sound bites: "I know what's going on. I'm going on."
Historic parallels are unreliable, even in a party which loves them as much as Labour. Nevertheless for devaluation read Iraq, and for Roy Jenkins read Gordon Brown, and it isn't too difficult to see the similarities. Just as Mr Jenkins never did anything so vulgar as nakedly seek the premiership, so Gordon Brown's speech yesterday was much too subtle to amount to a crude leadership bid. True, it made all the passionate and calculated appeals to the party's sensibilities of which he is formidably capable.
It endlessly repeated the term "Labour" at the expense of "New Labour," a term he did not use once in its capitalised form. Much of it was devoted to clothing and - for a Labour Chancellor unprecedented - justifying his commitment to stability and prudence as a protection for the poor, and for the conference mantra of the week: "hard working families." But it stayed - just - within the boundaries of agreed Government orthodoxy when it came to policy.
It nevertheless reflected a differentiation between Chancellor and Prime Minister which has probably never been defined as sharply. Partly, this is a matter of body language and style. But coded though it may have been at times, the text pointed to a number of strategic differences between the men.
Mr Brown's promise that reform was not happening for reform's sake but must "promote Labour values" was at once an assurance to the party and a warning to the most vanguardist radicals in the Government. His heavy emphasis on dividing lines between Tories and Labour also pointed subliminally to a dividing line between Mr Blair and himself, since he is known to believe that the most outré of reforms, for example, by use of the private sector in the NHS, tend to blur the Labour-Tory distinction.
The phrase in his peroration about being "best when we are boldest" is borrowed directly from the Blair speech last year. But the phrases "best when we are united, best when we are Labour" will be taken by some Blairites as a dig at their man, reflecting his view that the constant challenges to the party are themselves divisive. He talked of backing Mr Blair in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq but offered no defence of his policy in going to war in the first place. His flagging up of the idea that in foreign policy Britain should be a "beacon" to Europe and the US rather than a "bridge" is significant.
If that sounds too cynical, then it is worth considering that the two most important men in British politics are at least in part engaged in a struggle for the hearts and minds, not only of the party but of the media - and the Murdoch press in particular. Mr Blair has to his advantage in this unedifying struggle his steadfast support for the US war in Iraq and his drive to regulate bogus asylum seeking. By contrast Brown has his aggressive scepticism about early euro-entry and his concerns about the EU constitutional treaty.
For now, of course, this is only a larger context for what is being played out in Bournemouth in the first two days of the conference. Not perhaps a beauty contest, but neither exactly a reassertion of unity in the most creative partnership in British post-war politics.
Stephen Frears' classy Channel 4 film The Deal is as telling a dramatisation of that relationship as anyone is likely to attempt. David Morrisey's stunningly accurate performance as Gordon Brown must rank as one of the finest portrayals of a living person on film. Only incidentally does it lend some credence to two partial rewrites of history. The Brownite legend overlooks the extent to which Tony Blair was the runaway favourite when Brown sacrificed his own candidacy to allow Blair a clear run at the leadership. The other equally unreliable Blairite legend - created partly to assuage feelings of guilt generated by the Brownite one - is to suggest that Mr Brown could plausibly have expected a victory over John Smith two years earlier after Neil Kinnock stood down, and that he "bottled" his chance. But this is hardly a criticism. For like the film itself both legends go to the heart of the emotional truth contained in the film's epigraph before the closing titles that Mr Brown is "still waiting" to inherit the leadership.
Never did that look truer than yesterday. But Mr Brown faces a dilemma which is not easily resolved. If he does nothing he is faced with Mr Blair's apparent determination to stay until well after the next election, and by the Cabinet's evident reluctance to turn on Mr Blair as the Cabinet turned on Mrs Thatcher in 1990. To cite a minor example, John Prescott, who believes strongly in the eventual Brown succession, is said to have expressed irritation that the close Brown ally, Yvette Cooper, voted on to back a potentially troublesome debate on tuition fees at the conference.
But if he pushes too hard for the leadership - not so much in the sense of an overt bid but in the sense of repeatedly baulking the incumbent on some of his cherished goals - then he may simply entrench Mr Blair's determination not to go. By striking only to wound, moreover, he risks weakening Labour's electoral appeal at the next election and undermining the very legacy he is entitled to expect in the next Parliament. It's in apparent recognition of all this that there have been virtually no calls this week for Mr Blair's resignation from those who would like to see Mr Brown replace Mr Blair.
That Mr Brown's position in the party has strengthened somewhat at the expense of Mr Blair's is not in doubt. Mr Blair's credibility has suffered greatly as a result of a war in Iraq that at times only he wanted. He has a great deal to do in his speech today when he combines his "no surrender" message with an impassioned assertion that reform is for the sake of the enduring Labour values of social justice. But the parallel with the late Sixties can cut both ways. Admittedly Harold Wilson, to everyone's surprise, lost the 1970 election. But he handsomely recovered his own authority over the party.
The fact is that if Mr Blair can emerge relatively unscathed personally by Hutton, if Iraq starts to move towards some form of stability, if next June's mid-term elections in the councils, Scotland, Wales and London are not too disastrous for Labour, then the same could happen to him. If not, then his ability to recover power as well as remain in office could yet be fatally compromised. But the moment has not come yet - and may still not do so not until after the election. It still looks, on balance, as if Mr Brown will have to wait a while longer.Reuse content