Labour and Tories look to the future

As the two main political parties prepare for their conferences, the Sunday Times political editor picks the highlights for lobbyists and politics watchers

Who would have thought it? A Tory peer and former vice-chairman of the party making a keynote speech at a Labour Party conference.

This year Lord Sebastian Coe, the head of Britain's successful 2012 Olympics bid, is to stand on the platform at Brighton to hail the country's victory in bringing the Games to London. He may be
out of party politics, and no doubt will win polite applause from delegates, but his presence will rankle with some Labour supporters.

In a way it is a typically Blairite move. The PM has always courted leading Tories during his tenure, bringing them into what used to be called his 'big tent'. Too much should not be made of Coe's appearance, but it does remind the public of Blair's desire to build a broad, centrist coalition.

This will be a key issue at the Labour conference. Blair is in the unique position of having won three successive terms and already announced his departure from Number 10, albeit leaving the exact timing of his exit as something to be speculated upon.

Labour holds the centre ground
So what then is his task at this year's conference? No doubt there will be some in the party who will want to see it move in a left-wards direction, particularly the trade unions. Some of the 'brothers' are already pushing for a rethink on the grounds that the Government's majority was slashed to 65 at the last election. And the left-wing think-tank Compass, headed by former lobbyist Neal Lawson, is pressing for recognition of the importance of the 'democratic left' by acknowledging the legacy of the late Robin Cook.

Those close to Blair maintain that the current parliamentary majority is still pretty remarkable given two controversial first terms. This conference, they say, is crucial to establishing a theme of pressing ahead with even more radical reform – 'forward, not back', as the election slogan said.

Darren Murphy, until recently a senior adviser to the PM, and now a
director at APCO, says: 'The main thing is that if Labour – and Gordon Brown – want a fourth term, they must hold together the centre-left coalition established by Blair because the fight in the 100 or so Labour/Tory marginal seats is for the centre ground. Public service reform – how much and how far choice and opportunity can be extended to all in health and education – will provide a real test of how much Labour in the third term wants to maintain its hold on the vital centre ground.'

We will see if the Chancellor agrees when he flies in from Washington on Monday morning to give his own speech. Insiders say relations between Blair and Brown are – currently – good. There is a logic in keeping it this way: it could well be in the Chancellor's interests to not take over as leader until near the next election, when he may still be enjoying a honeymoon period as the newly installed prime minister.

There will be plenty of opportunity for Blair and Brown to demonstrate their unity on one issue that will be prominent this year.
The TGWU is pressing for secondary picketing in  light of the Gate Gourmet dispute, but Number 10 and Number 11 are determined there should be no return to the crippling strikes of old.

For the public affairs industry, Labour's conference provides an
opportunity to catch up on the mood within government. Jeremy Fraser, head of public affairs at Four Communications, says: 'It's a bit like that period between Christmas and New Year when families catch up with each other. What are the nuances and how will Brown show he is going to shape up as a leader at the next election? Picking up the tone will be much more interesting and useful than what is said in conference speeches.'

The Tory conference in Blackpool is going to be more fun than usual, although there will be a slight sense of déjà vu – another leadership contest.

All the main challengers – David Davis, Ken Clarke, David Cameron and Liam Fox – get their chance to make a major speech. Contrary to suggestions, this will not take the form of 'hustings'; they will simply make their contributions in debates relevant to their shadow cabinet roles or, in Clarke's case, his position as a grandee on the party's council of 'wise men'. So it is probably mildly advantageous to be the one who speaks last during the week – in this case Fox is the lucky man.

With an electorate of 198 MPs, every vote will count. There will be lots of plotting and dinner-table wooing of MPs by the various camps. Particularly important are the new intake of 51, mostly younger, backbenchers. They pack a punch by making up more than a quarter of the parliamentary party and are largely as yet undecided or, at least, undeclared.

Tory leadership race
Insiders say the race, which will officially kick off in Blackpool, is wide open. Davis, the frontrunner, is expected to gather about 70 votes in the first round of the contest, well short of a majority. It is thought that Clarke could only muster 45 votes at the moment (despite gaining momentum in the media since he declared his intention to run) but will pick up more support in later rounds. Fox's backers insist he could rival Clarke, however.

Cameron's campaign, which was seen to have got off to a good start early in the summer, appears to be flagging. The 38-year-old shadow education secretary has so far only won the public backing of 15 MPs.

There will be much debate about the leadership election rules. Under the current system, the top two MPs go through to a ballot among all 300,000 members of the party. In 2001 Clarke was the favourite of MPs but lost to Iain Duncan Smith in the decisive vote among the party's grass roots.

Michael Howard is seeking to change the rules so that MPs have the final say, but there are signs that his plan could be rejected by the party.

Senior party sources say that rather than seek a compromise that could delay Howard's departure until the new year – such as creating a Labour-style electoral college – the election for the Conservative leadership will proceed under existing rules.

This leaves little for Howard to talk about in his conference address. He will have to be careful not to make comments that give away a preference for his successor, even if he does detest David Davis. I am told the party leader will be even-handed and praise all the candidates.

Early on there was wild talk that Coe should throw his hat into the ring. The Olympics supremo will also be at Blackpool. He will probably be the only Tory there who has anything to celebrate.

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