Leadership, leadership, leadership

Leadership has dominated the three party conferences this year. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines assesses the goings on in Blackpool and Brighton.THE Conservatives have a leader in name only, Labour has a leader who is going to give up but won't say when, and the Liberal Democrats have a leader who thinks he's staying put but against whom there are a number of serious question marks.

Leadership has dominated the three party conferences this year. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines assesses the goings on in Blackpool and Brighton.

THE Conservatives have a leader in name only, Labour has a leader who is going to give up but won't say when, and the Liberal Democrats have a leader who thinks he's staying put but against whom there are a number of serious question marks.

Thus we conclude three weeks of political debate in the party conferences, held in the wake of Labour's historic third election victory.

Let's start with the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy led his party to its best ever election result in May, ending up with the most third-party MPs since the Liberals in 1923.


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But there are many in his party who believe 2005 was a lost opportunity. Labour was suffering from the fall-out over the invasion of Iraq, while the Tories were on a path to nowhere, eight years after being thrown out of office.

Surely, this year was destined to be a great breakthrough. But no such joy.

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The Lib Dems gained some, lost others. Why? Many on the modernising wing of the party - yes, the Liberal Democrats have as many modernisers as the Tories - blame Kennedy for going into an election promising income tax increases, a local income tax to replace council tax, and a blind devotion to European federalism.

These taxation policies went down like a lead balloon in the high income south east. Social commentators might tell voters that they should be happy to pay more taxes to help the less well off, but when it comes to the crunch, double income couples are not willing to pay higher property and income taxes.

At the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, the tensions broke through the surface. Firstly, the modernisers tried to modify the party's Euro-enthusiasm by proposing a curb the EU budget. This was voted out following a revolt led by the party's Euro MPs.

The next day, the conference refused to support plans to sell off Royal Mail.

Both defeats were seen as a snub for Mr Kennedy, who came under attack for his leadership style. It led to his amazing admission that he was more of a chairman than a leader.

Mr Kennedy's critics will spend the coming months wondering what to do. The modernisers on the right know that if they force a leadership challenge and Mr Kennedy quits, the mainly left of centre activists in the constituencies would vote in Simon Hughes, who would not shift the party's fiscal policies.

They may conclude that it's better to keep Kennedy and hope that his folksy style will be able to hold its own against new Labour and Tory leaders in a bruising and frenetic election campaign in either 2009 or 2010.

EVERYONE knows Tony Blair's giving up the Labour leadership. The question is: when?

By saying that he will quit before the next election but not before he has pushed through more of his reform agenda, he is keeping his natural successor Gordon Brown dangling on the edge of a rope.

Mr Brown made no secret of his desire for an early changeover when he made his Brighton conference speech on the Monday. The next day, the Prime Minister insisted now was not the time for him to walk away.

There are two possible timetables for the succession. In May 2007, Mr Blair will have occupied Downing Street for 10 years and that could be the signal to quit.

In November 2008, he will pass Margaret Thatcher's record as Prime Minister and perhaps his ego will want him to pass that milestone before giving up.

If he does hang on that long, he will be giving Gordon Brown very little time to assert his credentials before he has to call a General Election. Would that be fair - or would Mr Blair even care?

THE Conservatives this week have been watching a leadership beauty parade as candidates to replace Michael Howard - who announced immediately after May's election that we was off - have set out their credentials.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, David Cameron, Kenneth Clarke, David Davis and Dr Liam Fox all declared for the contest. Next week, MPs will begin the task of deciding which two should face a run-off among the party's 300,000 members.

Front runner Mr Davis, by general consensus, gave the weakest speech. In the frenzied atmosphere of the Blackpool Winter Gardens and the main conference hotels, this led to talk that he had not done enough and to speculation that his support would start to melt away.

By the clapometer rating scale, young moderniser David Cameron's barnstorming speech without notes scored 10 out of 10. Old stager Ken Clarke came next with nine, just ahead of right winger Dr Fox whose appeal to the Eurosceptics earned him sustained applause.

Even Sir Malcolm, the rank outsider, outscored Mr Davis, but even so the Shadow Home Secretary should have accumulated enough pledges from MPs to ensure his name is on the final ballot.

That might not please the conference delegates who sat through all five speeches. Many were openly saying that they would like either a Cameron-Fox or a Cameron-Clarke run-off when the ballot papers go out in the middle of November.

One very experienced Tory watcher in Blackpool summed up the problem the Tories might have if they choose Mr Davis as leader.

“If next year, he gives a conference speech as poor as this, and he does so again in 2007 and 2008, there will be such unrest that we could face calls for him to be replaced - a re-run of the disastrous tenure of Iain Duncan Smith.”

What is certain is the defeat of Michael Howard's cack-handed attempt to remove the ballot from the party members ensured this year's Tory conference has received the most positive headlines for a decade.

Even the temperature on the promenade in the middle of the week hit heights unknown during Tory visits to Blackpool - perhaps even the gods are once again smiling on the world's oldest democratic political party.

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