Step back from the destructively febrile atmosphere of recent weeks and Labour should be staging the party's annual conference in reasonably good shape. It is only 18 months ago that the party won a third successive election victory. The economy is performing relatively well. Tony Blair has announced he is leaving within the year. Unlike Margaret Thatcher he has not declared provocatively that he plans to go on and on. The probable successor is Gordon Brown, widely regarded as a successful Chancellor. Meanwhile questions are still being posed of the Liberal Democrats' leadership and familiar tensions are surfacing within the Conservative Party over tax and Europe. At the very least this should not be too bad a context for a governing party in its tenth year of power.
But the context is far from calm. The storms that erupted earlier this month were a reflection of deep-seated tensions. Partly they were a continuation of the familiar battle between Blair and Brown. But they were much more than that. They reflected despair within Labour's ranks at Blair's foreign policy most vividly demonstrated by his approach to the crisis in Lebanon. There are also ongoing concerns from the cabinet downwards about Blair's domestic agenda, his stubborn pursuit of reforms that are on the whole greeted with more genuine enthusiasm in the Conservative Party. The political choreography is also the source of unavoidable tensions. Blair has said publicly that he is going, but seems reluctant to leave the stage for several months at least. This means that there is an embryonic leadership contest, but the candidates remain ministers under Blair. It is difficult for them to sound distinctive, setting out a post-Blair agenda, when Blair is in charge for the foreseeable future. No doubt this is part of Blair's calculation. By staying put, he can shape the nature of the contest that is slowly unfolding under his leadership. This presents particular difficulties for Brown, who is under contradictory pressures to show that he will be different from Blair and also more or less the same. The highly unusual context means that the conference at best will be tense and awkward. At worst it will be explosive.
The early moves yesterday suggest that the former is more likely. In some ways the explosion has happened already in the form of the extraordinary "coup" against Mr Blair earlier this month. The subsequent fall out appears to have focused the minds of the various protagonists who now proclaim their desire to focus on a debate around policy. Even so a policy debate will not entirely obscure the tensions. Much attention has been paid to Blair's refusal formally to endorse Brown during his BBC interview yesterday. Of greater significance was his lukewarm response to Brown's proposal for a new independent board to run the NHS.
But Blair is going, and is not in a strong position to lead a debate about the future of his party. That is what will make the next few days in Manchester seem so strange. Probably there will be many moments of highly charged theatre, but they will not signify very much. Labour will only be in a position to map out the post-Blair era once Blair has gone. Almost certainly the new leader will be Brown, but he remains constrained while he remains formally the Chancellor under a Blair government. It is difficult to see this unusual arrangement lasting until next summer.
In the meantime the political landscape is hazy and the opinion polls are poor predictors of what will happen at the next general election. Labour awaits a new leader. The Conservatives await a new set of policies. Next year's Labour conference will be much more important than the theatrical event being played out in Manchester this week.Reuse content