Warming up: a new double act

With Blair bowing out in style and the search for a successor quickening, the Brown camp is glum. Bu

Amid all the talk of lies and goodbyes at the Labour party conference in Manchester, one development went largely unnoticed: the convergence of the two men likely to dominate the party in the absence of Tony Blair. The first, of course, is Gordon Brown. The second is David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, once Blair's anointed heir and now the Chancellor's most vocal cheerleader.

As Labour struggles to reinvent itself after the traumas of the past weeks, the success of this relationship will become Labour's touchstone. The two men will never forge the sort of emotional alliance Blair and Brown had in the early days of new Labour, not least because of the generation gap. But if they judge it right, they will create something of substance in the face of the still-empty vessel that is David Cameron's new Conservatism.

It has been deeply galling for those around the Prime Minister, who spent much of their time at the conference pursuing their desperate quest for a Stop Gordon candidate, to know that their best bet has already declared himself for the enemy. Miliband's interview in the pages of this magazine (NS, 18 September), in which he gave his unequivocal backing to the Chancellor, was seen by both sides as a major event in the soap opera. It was a bitter blow to those who had hoped to derail Brown. There are still hopeful reports in the media that he might change his mind, but Miliband himself is discouraging such speculation. Such an act of treachery would be out of character.

No amount of inducements will shake Miliband from his conclusion that Labour can win the next election only if it unites around the leadership of Brown. The moment Miliband removed himself from the contest, others should have realised that the game was up. But there is no accounting for the vanity of politicians. That said, the defeat of a John Reid-Alan Johnson dream ticket will only make Miliband's position stronger.

The imminent deputy leadership contest will provide a fascinating sideshow in the months to come: an opportunity for a genuine debate about the future direction of the party. Yet it is easy to forget that there will be another vacancy when Tony Blair and John Prescott resign. If Brown takes over, he will need to fill the post he has held for nine years. He is being urged to appoint Miliband as his chancellor. It would be a bold move, particularly as it had been assumed that he would choose a loyalist safe pair of hands such as Alistair Darling, while waiting for his protégé Ed Balls, currently a junior minister at the Treasury, to gain the necessary experience. But this would send out the wrong signals when he has committed himself to a "cabinet of all the talents".

From the moment the leader left the hall on 26 September, there was a Blair-shaped hole in the middle of this battered party. The Prime Minister's astonishing address, with its vaudeville schmaltz, served to show the party faithful what they are about to lose and added to the atmosphere of doubt and pessimism that loomed over this conference. There is a strong feeling now that the vacuum left by Blair cannot be plugged by Brown alone, however much he tries to persuade delegates that he would be "plus royaliste que le roi". Indeed, few are rallying to his aid: I lost count in Manchester of the ministers and former ministers who told me of their doubts about Brown's quality as an election winner. Despite his relative youth, Miliband alone has the authority to bind the party to Brown.

It is still hard to predict what might be the guiding principles of a Brown/Miliband pact (although we could be just months away from it). Yet the beginnings of a programme are already emerging - and it will not be the Home Office-dominated crime and immigration agenda that Blair outlined in his speech. Asked at a Social Market Foundation fringe event to identify the dominant issue on which Labour should fight the next election, Miliband named education. He argued that the party should return to the first principles of its 1997 victory, when education was famously priorities numbers one, two and three. Brown believes the same.

Pernicious divisions

Stripped of the tributes to Blair and the assurances that he will press on with Blairite policies on public sector reform, criminal justice and the war against terror, Brown's message in his speech was that education must, again, become the most important aim. His commitment to match the funding per pupil of the independent sector in state schools, as announced in the last Budget to little acclaim but repeated by him in Manchester, is a significant sign that a Brown government would attempt to address one of the most pernicious divisions in British society.

Furthermore, I am told that Brown intends his first major policy announcement as prime minister to be on education. Johnson, the Education Secretary, may not be pleased to know that the Chancellor already has a team at the Treasury working on primary-school policy in preparation for next year. This involves taking the lessons of Sure Start, the government's much-praised scheme for improving health and education for disadvantaged pre-school children, and applying them to primary schools. This would tailor schooling to the child, often on a one-to-one basis. Children would also receive lectures as well as conventional classroom teaching. This flies in the face of the current obsession with inventing structures, such as trust schools, an idea that is likely to be left to wither on the vine.

In his many public appearances during conference week, Miliband argued that Labour must fight the next election with a core message that it is the "party of change" and not the "party of more of the same". This provides a neat way of permitting the Tories to agree with present government policy, while Labour presses ahead with further reforms. Education has not been without its controversy for the government, with tuition fees and trust schools providing two of the biggest rebellions of the Blair era.

On the face of it, the government has a good story to tell. When Labour came to power only 28 schools had 70 per cent of their pupils getting five A-C grades at GCSE; now it is 550. At the other end of the scale, in 1997, 660 schools had 75 per cent of pupils not getting five A-C grades; now the figure is 58. The real task, Miliband and Brown recognise, is to tackle the residual hard core of schools in disadvantaged areas.

There is no evidence that Brown and Miliband have been conspiring to develop an alternative strategy (though Miliband is a regular visitor to 11 Downing Street). As a former head of policy at No 10 and later an education min ister, Miliband is an architect of the Blairite approach to schools. It seems that Miliband and Brown are reaching similar conclusions.

It has not been a good conference for Brown. One of his ministerial allies, speaking on the morning after his speech, when the furore over Cherie Blair's alleged offence was at its height, said the mood was "miserable and pessimistic". This was always going to be Blair's showcase occasion, once it was clear it was to be his last. But Brown has a new and powerful ally in Miliband and will make the most of what could become an unbeatable political partnership.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act