Each autumn the Labour party performs a ritualistic drama. First, trade unionists and left-wingers talk darkly about insurrection at the annual party conference. Blair must go, they say. At conference fringe meetings, such whispers become a full-blown war cry. Next Gordon Brown gives a rousing speech, laying out his rival vision of the future. There is talk of mutiny even as the Prime Minister comes on stage. But as he starts his oration, his audience is quickly spellbound. Rebels fall silent. Then applaud. Then coo. Then everyone boards the train back to London and the new parliamentary term begins.
This year the show has finally moved on. It will be set in Manchester rather than a decaying seaside resort, and the Blairite-Brownite division which provided such entertainment in conferences past is rapidly disintegrating. Among Mr Blair’s allies and enemies there is a clear consensus that this will be his last conference as leader, no matter how Churchillian his speech. The party is simply in too much danger.
Labour is bankrupt, hated and cowering at a 19-year low in the opinion polls. The Conservatives, according to an ICM poll last week, have 40 per cent of the vote, which they need to win a general election. The terror arrests and the sense of national emergency have not rallied voters to the government but made them look afresh at
Sir Menzies Campbell and the Liberal Democrats. For Labour, there is an urgent need for a Plan B, implemented by Leader B.
Mr Blair will return from the Caribbean to find his top lieutenants alternating between panic and resigned despair. Even John Reid admits the prime ministerial game is up. A few months ago the Home Secretary was informing doubters that Mr Blair had pledged to serve a full third term. Now he tells colleagues that ‘Tony will soon be gone’ and talks about what should happen next. His plans include promoting the next generation of leaders. But here, the Chancellor has beaten him to it.
While Mr Brown has kept utterly silent throughout the summer, his aides have been hard at work speaking to young Blairite MPs about the case for defection. The Chancellor, it is said, believes renewal of the party does not just mean a new leader but a new team with new faces. It is time to pension off those who ‘lost the 1992 election’ (to borrow one phrase in circulation) and finally promote those Blairites whose loyalty has been repaid only by junior ministerial chores.
This strikes a chord. The bright young Labour MPs who came into parliament under Mr Blair’s leadership have patiently waited for their turn. Yet the Prime Minister has spent nine years recycling the same faces, while the Conservatives are now the ones promoting youth. Those who once saw Mr Blair as a patron now regard him as a bed-blocker, forestalling the rejuvenation which Mr Brown is suddenly promising. The Chancellor is letting it be known that he intends to match the stardust of David Cameron with a young team of Gordie’s Angels.
But Mr Brown’s recruits are not being asked to ditch their Blairite credentials. Instead they will be billed as ‘Blairites-for-Brown’, who will declare that their personal politics fits comfortably within the Chancellor’s big tent. Thus Mr Brown will be shown to have risen above petty intra-party factionalism to become the true unity candidate. Above all, those who attack him will be portrayed not as anti-Brown but anti-Labour.
Witness what happened last week when Stephen Byers returned from obscurity to call for the abolition of inheritance tax in an article in the Sunday Telegraph. The counterattack bore all the hallmarks of a Brownite operation: co-ordinated attack, launched on a Saturday afternoon to pre-empt the Byers intervention. But this time the voices deployed to shout down Mr Byers were conspicuously those of Blairite MPs.
Chris Bryant, an ultra-Blair loyalist and fellow Christian Socialist, denounced Mr Byers for ‘attacking a Labour government with a right-wing proposal’. Sion Simon, a former associate editor of The Spectator before he became a Blairite cheerleader in the Commons, issued a Soviet-style statement of loyalty to his new master. ‘Any suggestion that the middle classes cannot trust Gordon Brown,’ he declared, ‘is untrue.’ Thus Mr Byers was portrayed by his own faction as an isolated traitor.
It is even being said that the Chancellor has been the victim of a wicked caricature. ‘People have created in their heads a version of Gordon which is high-taxing, pro-redistribution and generally not Blairite,’ explains one arch-Blairite, entirely in earnest. ‘He will be the Blairite candidate in the leadership election, if there is one.’
This latter point is important. Labour’s Left is planning to send its own candidate, John McDonnell, into battle against Mr Brown — a contest which once suited the Chancellor’s agenda perfectly as he could enhance his Middle England credentials by distinguishing himself from Old Labour. Now it is not clear whether he can afford to alienate voters — any voters — so the pressure is on for a ‘consensus’: a coronation rather than election. Only one man has the stature to thwart this plan.
Mr Reid is the only person in the Labour party who is rising in the public’s esteem. His assured response to the terror arrests a fortnight ago has transformed his personal ratings, placing him above David Cameron. In the diplomatic community, ambassadors have suddenly spotted in the Home Secretary Blair’s steel, and report back to their capital cities that there is indeed a man capable of filling Blair’s shoes on the world stage — and his name is not Gordon.
The British public like Mr Reid, and the outside world respects him. Luckily for the Conservatives, neither consideration cuts ice with a Labour party which is in too much of a panic to take any risks. Another year in the Home Office, and Mr Reid might have a shot at the top job. Now, however, he lacks the parliamentary support which Mr Brown has been assiduously cultivating since 1994. ‘I would not vote for Reid if he paid me,’ says one Blairite — half-joking that the Home Secretary might well make such a proposition.
There has been no ideological conversion of Blairites. They have not turned against the market in healthcare, nor do they consider tax credits the answer to poverty. They just think that Mr Blair has to go very soon, and that Mr Brown is the only plausible alternative. The prospect of defeat focuses the mind in politics. To keep their seats at the next election, Blairite MPs may well have to start convincing the world that Mr Brown is the best future for Britain. That is why they have reluctantly started convincing themselves.