For those who feared that the art of Kremlinology had been made redundant by the collapse of communism, Gordon Brown's speeches at the annual Labour conference are there to reassure them that the coded statement is still alive and well and living in Britain.
On the face of it, the Chancellor's speech could not have been more exemplary in its loyalty. Compared to last year's blatant bid for the leadership, and its almost open put-downs of the Prime Minister, this was the soul of propriety. Not even the most indirect assault was launched on Tony Blair by name or title, not a hint of criticism was given of the decision to replace the Chancellor with Alan Milburn as head of election planning, nor was there a word that might have suggested that he thought a change in leadership was due.
And yet every phrase was weighed, every declaration carefully considered, to make clear Mr Brown's sense of renewed estrangement from Number 10, his resentment that his part in the success of the Labour Government was being sidelined and his burning belief that his was the vision of Labour's future that ought to prevail.
So we had long passages declaring the central importance to the success of the Government of the Chancellor's management of the economy, and even longer sections devoted to asserting that these same virtues of economic prudence would be essential for the third term. Keeping a firm hand on the economic tiller was crucial, he argued, "because, with the economy central to people's concerns at this next election as at every election, that is the way to entrench and retain the trust of the people on the economy and pay for the much-needed reforms and investment in public services." Subtext: You owe your success so far to me and I am not going be sidelined in the next election.
And we also had the full force of Mr Brown's over-wrought rhetoric declaring that the central platform of the party ought to be "a publicly funded health service free at the point of need," and "modern state schooling free of charge" and that the Government should "show the ethic of public service is so strong that public services can provide efficiently for all people without having to privatise or charge." Meaning? Let's have nothing to do with Alan Milburn and all this Blairite talk of radical reform of public services and privatisation.
To a visiting ambassador it must have seemed like an unexceptional but somewhat exhausting political harangue. But to the press, looking for the shadows of difference, and to the party faithful and the unions, looking for something that would represent their beliefs in socialism and their distrust of Number 10, there was no doubting the message. They cheered the Chancellor on his arrival on the floor and they gave his words a tumultuous reception as he completed them.
Where does that leave Tony Blair, and the public? More or less where they were before this conference assembled in Brighton. The Prime Minister and his Chancellor are barely on speaking terms. Privately, no one is denying that. But, furious though he may be at what he regards as his betrayal, Mr Brown is too much of a party loyalist to strike. Nor, having missed his opportunity when the Prime Minister was weakest earlier in the year, is there very much he can do about it, short of resigning, which would help neither him nor his chances of succession.
But then there is equally little that Mr Blair can do about Mr Brown in turn. He cannot sack his Chancellor - Mr Brown is too popular in the markets as well as the party for that. He cannot ignore him - Mr Brown holds the purse strings and can set the agenda for the whole of the coming year in the spending round due next month. And so the public and the party will have to go on living with this squabbling couple, who cannot break up but can no longer get on. "We're keeping together for the good of the children," they say as they studiously ignore each other's presence. But is it for the good of the nation?Reuse content