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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
An alternative leader?
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Let's make no bones about it - there are delegates in this conference looking for an alternative leader.

On Monday 29 September, Chancellor Gordon Brown stepped up to the rostrum and offered himself up.

In what may well have been his best conference speech for a decade, he delivered a careful, clever, unifying call to arms that delighted the packed-to-busting hall.

Gordon Brown
Brown restates Labour's values
It was careful because there was not even a hint that this was a leadership pitch or a criticism of Tony Blair.

Quite the reverse. He went out of his way to praise his leader, even pinching his "best when we are boldest" soundbite from last year's conference.

It was clever for the same reasons, but also because it both looked forward to a new phase of Labour government - one which some immediately characterised as a post-Blair government - while also drawing on the party's history.

And it was clever because he genuinely attempted to answer the question on everyone's lips: "what is Labour for?"

Leadership speech

Dismissing suggestions that there was no longer any ideological divide between the parties, he highlighted the NHS, full employment, an end to poverty and opportunity for all as "causes worth fighting for."

"So sometimes when things look difficult, times seem hard, pressures are great, when some may feel that complacency has crept in, momentum has been lost or the vision dimmed, then take inspiration from the unyielding determination of our pioneers.

He suggested there was a man who could heal the wounds created by Iraq and really kill off spin (he dismissed presentation as virtually irrelevant)
BBC's Nick Assinder

"Tough times did not diminish their idealism but made them even more determined that to transform lives you have to transform society."

If that doesn't sound like a leadership speech then nothing does.

And it was unifying because of those pro-Blair comments but also because it offered the breadth of vision that so many in the Labour party have been demanding.

At the same time, Mr Brown managed to hammer home the message that there would be no turning away from reform.

Taking over

But, thanks to the rest of it, the delegates' focus moved quickly on.

So the question must be: precisely how cynical was it?

Was this Gordon Brown seizing the moment that he has always believed would come?

And if Tony Blair is not going to honour the Granita promise to hand over the leadership willingly - if indeed that pledge was ever made - then was this about Gordon Brown helping him towards the door?

By giving such a powerful speech he certainly reminded delegates what some of them may have begun to doubt - that there is another man capable of taking over.

That there is another man who can put New Labour into a historical context.

Blair's speech

Most importantly, he suggested there was a man who could heal the wounds created by Iraq and really kill off spin (he dismissed presentation as virtually irrelevant).

By doing all that he must have made the prospect of a leadership change before the next general election more rather than less likely.

The Labour party knows that Tony Blair is damaged, they just haven't yet made up their minds whether the damage is terminal.

For sure, the prime minister can turn things around and a good speech of his own on Tuesday could mark the beginning of that process.

But if he fails then delegates at this conference will not have to look far for an alternative.




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