Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A tale of two conferences

Gordon Brown has been touring the BBC studios here in Manchester this morning. (I say studios, I'm talking about a few partitions in a large exhibition hall that used to be a station).

He looks and sounds more relaxed than for some time. Perhaps it's the challenge of getting to grips with a global financial crisis or the fact that this conference has gone far better for the Prime Minister than he dared to hope.

Ruth Kelly's resignation as Transport Secretary ("to spend more time with her family" - copyright Norman Fowler) will mean a Cabinet reshuffle and one is expected at the end of next week.

One reshuffle decision he has to take is whether the time is right to merge the Wales Office with its Scottish and Northern Irish equivalents. Would Paul Murphy be a suitable "Secretary of State for the Union" or will his Cabinet comeback end after nine months?

If the latter happens, and Jim Murphy (no relation) gets the job, Gordon Brown would be left with a Cabinet without any Welsh MP, barring unexpected promotion for David Hanson or Kim Howells. Rising star Kevin Brennan remains a junior Education Minister.

One option might be to have a Welsh Minister of State allowed to attend Cabinet when required but is would be a brave decision for the party of Kinnock, Foot, Bevan and Callaghan to have no full-time Welsh voice around the Cabinet table.

Merger might appease English anger at "special treatment" for the Celts but would win few friends elsewhere. Devolution to Belfast is not yet complete, another factor that may yet further delay the long-trailed merger.

Mr Brown denied that there were any "political issues" behind Ruth Kelly's decision to leave the Government despite well-informed speculation that she was one of four Cabinet Ministers said to be considering resignation as part of their unhappiness with Mr Brown's leadership.

It has been a strange, some might say weird, conference. The conference has shrunk from the corporate jolly of years gone by, as the Tories in Birmingham prepare for an influx of lobbyists keen to grease up to a "government in waiting".

Here in Manchester, there are fewer stands than previous conferences and the average age of the average delegate appears to have risen substantially in a party that has lost half its members since winning power. That should worry Labour.

The journalistic cliche of the week is to say that there have been actually two conferences taking place in Manchester.

There's the loyalist rally in the hall, where Ministers deliver rather over-the-top endorsements of the Prime Minister and delegates give the PM and his wife the pop star treatment.

Then there's the conference taking place on the fringe, in the bars and hotels inside the secure zone, where Ministers convinced that Mr Brown will never turn Labour's fortunes around bare their souls to hacks.

Both conferences merge on the final day with the singing of The Red Flag, words helpfully provided in the conference newsletter.

Birimingham beckons for the travelling media circus but not before a brief visit home to spend some time with my family.

No comments: