The Labour Party opens its annual conference in extraordinary circumstances. Not only does it find itself in power during the biggest financial crisis for more than half a century, but it is in the middle of its own crisis over the leadership of Gordon Brown. In the narrow context of the Manchester conference, the challenges are clear. The Prime Minister must convey a clear sense of how he plans to navigate Britain through the immediate financial turmoil. After months of indecisive caution, he intervened more effectively this week, but he must now outline his route map towards calmer terrain – and explain, as a former chancellor, why it is that Britain appears more vulnerable to the turbulence than some other equivalent nations.
The extreme fragility of the markets seems to have brought about a pause in the mutiny against his leadership. Even Mr Brown's most ferocious internal critics appear to accept that there is something recklessly parochial about seeking to topple a prime minister at this juncture. Still, Mr Brown must do much more than play the card of being an experienced leader in a crisis, especially given his record. He must try to convey a wider sense of purpose for his government after a dismal year which has witnessed an unprecedented reversal in the opinion polls. Even if he succeeds in so doing, he is not necessarily safe. But Mr Brown's muddled mutineers, including those ministers secretly dripping poison into the media, must either act or give up in the next few weeks. The election is probably at least 18 months away. Labour will be governing in precarious times. They need to decide quickly who should be their leader and back him or her.
The next few days are important for other ministers too. Those seen as possible leadership candidates must show they possess some of the necessary qualities to handle such difficult circumstances. The conference, which will have elements of a beauty parade, will test their capacity to present their case effectively. And there will be ministers – as the Cabinet Office Minister, Ed Miliband, argues in his interview in today's Independent – striving to convey the sense that the Government is not heading, tired and divided, towards inevitable defeat. It is too easy for them to blame everything on their leader. Polls suggest that no member of the Cabinet has captured the public's imagination over the past year.
The conference will not be the decisive event in Labour's current trauma over leadership and direction, but it is an event that, one way or another, will make waves. The beleaguered Mr Brown likes to complain that few have been listening to him in recent months. There will be listeners aplenty in the coming days and wondering if he has what it takes to get him – and the country – through such testing times.Reuse content