Has the chancellor got what it takes?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor For some years now, the annual Labour conference has been a tale of two speeches - Gordon's and Tony's - but never more so than at this year's assembly, which starts on Sunday in Manchester.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

For some years now, the annual Labour conference has been a tale of two speeches - Gordon's and Tony's - but never more so than at this year's assembly, which starts on Sunday in Manchester.

The prime minister's speech on Tuesday is bound to have a strong valedictory flavour.

He may well put much emphasis on the future - partly perhaps to get further up the nose of the heir-apparent.


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But the simple fact of the matter is that it will be the last time he addresses the annual conference as the party's leader.

How will his speech be received in the conference hall?

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With great enthusiasm, I suspect.

A standing ovation can be expected for a leader who has delivered the party three consecutive big general election victories and up to 13 years of power without a break - two major achievements it has never had before. And I imagine that those applauding and cheering him will include quite a few nationally-known figures and local activists who have come in recent years to revile him and to want him replaced.

This year, however, Mr Blair's speech should be much less of a centrepiece than Mr Brown's.

The prime minister is very largely of the past, and it seems that for a couple of years at least the country's and Labour's future will be in the hands of the chancellor.

Will he speak on Monday as the chancellor or as the prime minister-in-waiting?

A combination of the two, probably.

But whatever the mixture, it will help him greatly if it is an outstandingly good speech, for he is not yet a sure winner as Mr Blair's successor. He will not find that easy, however, as he is not actually a very good orator.

His speeches tend to pin you up against a wall and beat you into submission. When he's on good form, Mr Blair is much better at it.

His best conference speeches have a variety and subtlety - and an ability to win the empathy of people who are not traditional Labour supporters - that the chancellor has never been able to match.

But on Monday, Mr Brown would probably win a standing ovation even if he merely recited the weekend's football results.

Most of the delegates will be thinking that he is going to be their next leader, and that for the party's sake as well as his they should respond as if he has just produced a masterclass in political rhetoric.

If both of the big speeches are well received, it will have much to do with a desire to keep the uneasy peace in the Labour Party and stop a repetition of the strife that threatened to turn into a form of civil war a fortnight ago when an attempt was made to force Mr Blair out of No 10 within a few days.

That wish was strongly expressed at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Several ministers made it clear to Mr Blair and Mr Brown that they are sick of the feuding, and that there must be none of it at the conference.

And the prime minister's response was to require a self-denying ordinance from all of them.

Reflecting this mood, Charles Clarke told me he thought there would be a strong urge in Manchester not to stir up trouble.

“I think it will be relatively quiet”, he said. He even said it could be quite “boring”.

But some would say that could depend to some considerable extent on him.

The former home secretary contributed much to the recent mayhem in the party with his sharp and deep criticisms of Mr Brown, and similar comments at one or more of the fringe meetings he will be addressing could stir it all up again.

Asked if he was planning to say anything controversial, the Norwich MP replied: “Not particularly.” But we shall see.

A salient feature of the Blair-Brown strife and the war of the succession is that it takes so little to get the bullets flying. In both the Blair and Brown camps there are people with so much practice in sniping at the other side that you have to wonder if they are good for anything else.

As in a gangland turf war, any perceived slight or lack of respect is likely to be followed almost instantly by retribution and over-reaction.

This is, of course, a gift to the opposition parties and to Labour's enemies in the media.

In an atmosphere of deep distrust and paranoia, it is not that difficult to elicit a comment that can be presented and interpreted either by the supporters or opponents of Mr Brown as a declaration of war.

Keep a keen eye on the next batch of Sunday papers and the TV and radio interviews that will follow. By the time the conference opens, the atmosphere could be thick with recrimination.

It is Mr Brown who needs to be particularly wary of this, for he has everything to lose.

His image and reputation have been damaged by the recent in-fighting, and potential leadership challengers - John Reid and Alan Johnson, for example - could capitalise on further mistakes.

One question ought to dominate in Labour minds before, in and after Mr Brown's big speech: has he got what it takes to win a general election?

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