Opinion: Dissent among ranks on conference eve

The new political season started exactly where it finished - with a row over a reshuffle. The surprise resignation of work and pensions secretary Andrew Smith and, as I write, the talk about the promotion of Alan Milburn, has got the Gordon Brown/Tony Blair feud right back on top of the political agenda.

For a mild mannered and fiercely loyal chap like Smith to ignore the leader's advice and chuck it all in shows just how fed up with Blair so many ministers are. Like so many before him, Smith was the victim of the Downing Street poisonous briefers. He may not set the world alight but I can confirm that he is one of the most hard working intelligent MPs I've ever met. For his loyalty and hard work he is branded a 'plodder' and 'lacklustre performer' by Number 10. On the other hand, ex-Trotskyite Milburn is seen by Blairites as the man to take on Brown.

Like me, Brown is highly suspicious of ultra leftists who have been converted to Blairism. And why on earth should someone who has never had any experience of elections except his own suddenly be promoted as an election strategist?

The reason is simple. Blairites see Milburn as the man to stop Brown becoming leader. These people obviously don't live on the same planet as the rest of us. Not only has Milburn little support among MPs, the unions hate him too as anyone visiting Brighton for the TUC next week will find out.

It is on the South coast that the political conference season starts and for the first time in living memory no one is holding a conference in Blackpool.

When Michael Portillo wrote this week that the Tories problem was that they had no charisma, he just stated the obvious. As they gather in Bournemouth next month the Party faithful may wish to look at what the Scottish Nationalist Party has just done. The SNP ditched its boring leader and replaced him with an old one who immediately announce that the Party, if elected, would cut taxes. Now that's what you would call bold especially coming from Alex Salmond who pledged to raise tax last time he was leader.

The Liberals now seem happy with their leader which isn't surprising given that the alternatives are far worse. The young turks behind destabilising Charles Kennedy now realise that the public actually like their politicians to be fairly normal. The LibDems biggest problem is that the vast majority of their target seats are Tory held ones.

But if the Tories implode it is still not inconceivable that Kennedy could become official leader of the opposition. However, the big question still remains - who will lead the Labour Party? Blair or Brown?

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