Gordon Brown is a political conjuror. Yesterday, his speech to the Labour conference proclaimed the importance of unity. In his speech to the conference a year ago Mr Brown was openly troublemaking, throwing several grenades in the direction of Tony Blair. How do we make sense of the apparent contrast? Here is the conjuror's trick. The contrast was not as great as it seemed. Indeed, the political purpose of both speeches was identical.
Yesterday's address was much subtler. Last year, the Chancellor purged a year of frustration and anger in a great cathartic roar. This year, he covered up his even more acute sense of alarm by cloaking his words under the reassuring guise of unity.
Mr Brown made an error a year ago in declaring a public war on Mr Blair without any clear follow-up strategy. He was causing trouble without a purpose. Yesterday, Mr Brown had no choice but to adopt a different approach. Mr Blair's determination to go on and on, his appointing of Alan Milburn to run the election campaign and the policy implications for a third term infuriate the Chancellor.
But Mr Brown is in no position to strike. There are no levers and even if there were he would not necessarily use them. He does not want to commit an act of regicide and face the bloody consequences for himself and his party. Therefore another openly mischievous speech would have been rightly dismissed as a whining rant from the sidelines.
Evidently, his attempt to make the same speech in a different manner worked with some anxious Blairites watching at the side of the hall. At the end of the speech I turned to an ally of Mr Blair who described it as the most unifying address that Mr Brown had made in 10 years. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking. More likely it was an understandably desperate attempt to project the mollifying tone as the start of a new and more harmonious chapter at the top of the Government.
It may be a new chapter, but it will not be harmonious. The key passage in Mr Brown's speech came early on. He told the conference that: "Our task is not to consolidate the politics we inherited but, by our words and deeds, to transform people's views of what in our country is possible." In the view of some Brownites, the latest proposed prime ministerial reforms of the public services are a bleak consolidation of Thatcherism. Even if that is not Mr Blair's intention, they fear that will be the consequence of the reforms.
Not once in his speech did the Chancellor highlight the virtues of "choice" in public services. Yet this is Mr Blair's new pre-eminent theme. Mr Brown chose to do something altogether different. He sought to celebrate the "public ethos" in the delivery of public services. It was the longest and most lyrical section in the speech. In his view, Mr Blair simply does not understand the public ethos that shapes services from the BBC to local hospitals.
Mr Brown is not a conservative. He wants to reform the public services as well and some of his ideas, including regional variations in pay, will be unpopular with parts of his party. There was also another relatively fresh theme in his speech, highlighting the need for a more pluralist agenda, including a stronger local government. These are ways in which Mr Brown seeks to revive public services in the future. But for now he is engaged in a bigger internal battle, pitched against what he fears will be a reckless marketisation of public services under Mr Blair and Mr Milburn. Of course, the policies of the Conservative Party were part of his attack. But his declaration, that "we must show the ethic of public service is so strong that public services can provide efficiently for all people without having to privatise or charge," was also aimed at Mr Blair.
Mr Blair's favourite political adjective is "radical". His second-favourite is "bold". Neither of these crusadingly imprecise terms got a look-in yesterday. Instead, Mr Brown hailed a "progressive consensus, much more than a set of individual policies announced by politicians, but a set of beliefs that can be shared by the British people." Again, this was a coded reference to the Prime Minister's managerial style, where policies are sometimes announced under the banner of boldness without a clear context or thought-through consequences.
What is unclear is the degree to which Mr Brown has cause to be so concerned about the direction of domestic policy. If the past is anything to go by, he will indeed be engaged in some messy battles over future policy. The proposals for foundation hospitals - the biggest internal battle in the second term - had not been fully thought through. In my view, introducing top-up fees for universities - the other major cause of Brownite concern - was a more constructive innovation. It will increase funding for more students and in a way which should make it affordable and palatable for poorer parents: better this policy than no policy at all. That is in the past. As for the future, it is not clear yet what Mr Milburn has in mind for a "radical agenda".
At a fringe meeting yesterday lunchtime, Mr Milburn spoke of the need for a "new Labour settlement". In a long interview for The Independent yesterday, the nearest we got to a policy announcement was: "What we have got to do is produce policies that connect with people's lives." I doubt if any voter in the country would disagree will that.
The Government's five-year plans include some good ideas and refer realistically to "limited choice" for patients and pupils. But the mechanisms by which parents and patients will exercise choice are still vague, especially in the context of limited resources. What is evident is that Mr Brown is already convinced that there will be more energy-sapping battles to fight over policy.
This is the oddest party conference since the one that was held by the Conservatives in 1992 shortly after Britain's withdrawal from the ERM. In that conference, which was also held in Brighton, the issue of Europe hovered over all other activity even though the Conservatives had recently won an election. The depressed mood set the scene for the turbulent years that followed.
In this conference, a great deal of impressive debate is being held on a range of issues and an array of innovative policies. It feels like the gathering of a party at ease with power. Yet the dark chaos in Iraq and the tensions between Mr Blair and Mr Brown are the persistent backdrop.
Once, Mr Blair and Mr Brown worked together to form a new coalition of support on the centre-left. Now, the two of them have become engaged in a battle over the future of progressive politics. There are differences over style, strategy and substance. They do matter and they are not being hyped by the media as so many claim here in Brighton, from Cabinet ministers downwards.
Yesterday, Mr Brown spoke of unity, but he was envisaging a unity in progressive politics that did not include Mr Blair. Today at the conference, it will be Mr Blair's turn.Reuse content