The Labour Party's conference in Brighton has not begun in auspicious circumstances. The fate of the hostage Ken Bigley overshadows the proceedings, ensuring that the horrors of Iraq, and the Prime Minister's pivotal role in that wretched drama, are at the forefront of delegates' minds. Pro-hunting protesters, whose tactics have become increasingly sinister of late, are threatening to disrupt the conference, adding to the impression of a besieged party. And then there is the almighty division that runs through the heart of Labour itself, between Tony Blair and his Chancellor. In an interview over the weekend, Gordon Brown made no attempt to disguise the fact that his relations with the Prime Minister have sunk to a new low. When Mr Brown rises to address the conference today, many delegates will be keenly anticipating a coded challenge to Mr Blair's leadership, of the sort they were treated to last year in the Chancellor's "real Labour" speech.
The "TBGBs", as even Mr Blair himself now calls them, have reached such an intensity that they are a threat to the stability of the Government. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor badly need to work out a new way of working together. The present arrangement - a virtual cold war between Mr Blair and his Downing Street neighbour - is not sustainable.
The relationship between the two men has shifted in the past year. The Prime Minister's decision earlier this month to strip Mr Brown of his control over the next Labour election manifesto and give it to his ally Alan Milburn is a clear sign that he intends to seize control of the domestic policy agenda. But in doing so, he is encroaching on territory that the Chancellor has long considered to be his by right. Not even Mr Brown's allies are sure how he will respond to this challenge to his authority, but an explosion of some sort is expected.
In one sense, this struggle between the two men is a personal one. Their relationship has been soured over the years both by brooding obstructionism from Mr Brown and promises from Mr Blair to step aside as Prime Minister at some ill-defined date. But it is also a struggle over policy. Mr Blair and his allies want to make wholesale reform of the public services Labour's platform for re-election. Mr Brown, on the other hand, is reluctant to make wild pledges, and would like a more consolidating manifesto. The Chancellor would prefer to fight the election by defending the Government's record, and fears that trumpeting a reform agenda will make it appear to the electorate as if nothing has been achieved in the past seven years.
Mr Brown is right that public-service reform proposals have to be properly thought through. One of this Government's greatest failings has been its willingness to adopt headline-grabbing ideas, only to drop them at a later stage when the implications of those proposals become clear. But Mr Brown is wrong if he thinks it is enough for Labour to go into the next general election boasting about all the things the Government has done. It is true that a good deal of money has been poured into the public services in the past four years, but there is very little indication that things are improving: the NHS needs to be made more responsive to the needs of patients; too many schools are failing; transport is a shambles. The Government gives the impression that it is only just getting round to these problems, despite having enjoyed office since 1997. And the Chancellor is reluctant to concede that the controlling instincts of Whitehall and the centralised provision of services are an impediment to delivery.
It is in the interests of both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that Labour wins a large majority in the next general election. Mr Brown should accept the olive branch tentatively offered today by Mr Milburn to include him in planning the next election campaign, and apply his considerable intellect to devising a Labour manifesto promising the radical reform that Britain's public services so badly need.Reuse content