Brown plays the wolf in sheep’s clothing

The only surprising event this week in Brighton was that the champagne at the Bell Pottinger bash in the Grand Hotel ran out before I arrived.

Apart from this slight PR disaster it was business as usual at Labour's party conference, with just one question on the delegates' minds: when will Gordon Brown take over from Tony Blair? Unlike in other years, 'Team Brown' and Number 10 have been briefing the hacks with the same line, which is why we have been fed a diet of 'unity' stories in the papers. As one political editor said to me: 'If they both say there is no rift we have to write it, even though we know it's bollocks.'

The Chancellor has accepted the fact that Blair is in the job until he decides to quit, and unlike many of his close friends and advisers, Brown believes it would be fatal for his leadership chances to try and push Blair out.

As his leadership-in-waiting speech showed, however, Brown desperately wants the top job now. The Chancellor may have praised the Prime Minister in his speech, but cleverly did it in the past tense: 'What a great leader you have been Tony – now piss off.' There was one paper at least, the Daily Mail, that spotted Brown's 'moral compass' reference to Blair's lack of one. Brown also talked about the influence of his mother and father. He still remembers bitterly how Blair chose to talk about 'the family' in his first speech following John Smith's tragic death, believing Blair was pointing to Brown's lack of children at the time.

I sensed most delegates would like to see Blair go soon, partly because they don't want yet another conference dominated by one subject, and partly because they know the faux peace between the two men probably won't last and divided parties don't win elections.
For me the most significant part of Brown's speech was his clever positioning in the 'centre ground'. He even went out of his way to upset the unions at the Trades Union Congress here a few weeks ago to show he wasn't a closet leftie.

He knows it is fatal to position himself to the left of Blair, which is why he is saying he backs the PM's reform agenda even though we all know he doesn't. I bet the biggest smile from the Chancellor came when he read the Daily Mail's statement: 'Forget it, Brown has NEVER been a man of the left.' The Mail might be fooled but
I know at least one union baron who isn't.

We will soon see if the Conservative Party can show the same
discipline in its attempt to appear electable.

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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