The Labour Party conference is plotting the course of the remainder of Labour’s third term of office. What does the future hold for this Labour government? What is Tony Blair’s likely future, and that of his potential successor, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer?
James Blitz, the FT’s political editor, answers your questions.
Of the current candidates who do you think the Labour Party would fear most as leader of the Tories and why?
Gaby Huddart, New York
James Blitz: Good question. I don’t think senior Labour figures are overwhelmingly worried by any one candidate. If Kenneth Clarke were to win, there would certainly be intense media interest, given his reputation as a big hitter who could land a few blows on Blair. But many Labour MPs question whether Clarke could sustain the momentum up to the next election. David Davis and Liam Fox appear more ruthless figures than Clarke - but both are too right wing. Blair will see the whole thing in terms of organisation than personalities. He believes the Conservatives need an overhaul in political strategy before he starts taking them seriously.
Is Gordon Brown likely to revive the largely moribund state of Labour party democracy? Or will he stick with Tony Blair’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ style of management?
David Smith, Manchester
James Blitz: As a political leader, Brown relies very much on trusted advisers and a close coterie of allies - even more than Blair does. So I am not sure he would be more inclusive than Blair either as leader of the Labour party or prime minister. I find it hard to believe he would overhaul Labour’s internal procedures to give activists and unions more of a voice than he has. He would shy away from doing anything that makes life more difficult for himself in Labour’s National Executive Committee or at party conference.
What would a Brown premiership mean for the transatlantic relationship? Ditto the chances of Britain ever joining the euro?
Andrew Child, London
James Blitz: For UK-US relations, it is hard to say. Brown is instinctively more pro-US than pro-European, given his strong criticism of the structural problems with the European economy. But how that would translate into relations with the Bush administration, or approaches on Iraq and Iran, is hard to say. I certainly think that, after eight years at the treasury, Brown would instinctively view international relations through an economic prism.
On the euro, a Brown premiership would mean no change from the strong objection to UK entry that we have now. Brown has a powerful grip on this policy at the treasury and that would simply be reinforced if he went to Downing Street. Given problems with the European economy, I doubt much would change here in any event.
Tony Blair took this country to war in Iraq. Would Gordon Brown have done the same and in what direction would he take Britain’s foreign policy?
Maria Tozzi, London
James Blitz: I don’t think Brown would have taken us to war with Iraq, no. Blair’s decisions on Iraq were driven by a powerful political instinct - a sense that it was the right thing to take on Saddam. I think Brown would have been far more cautious about every aspect of the Iraq policy. Under Brown UK foreign policy would have a more Eurosceptic tone and would be a little less focused on keeping a strong one-to-one relationship with the Bush administration. I think Brown would delegate more to his foreign secretary as prime minister. My hunch is he would keep Jack Straw in the post.
Blair seems resistant to handing over his position anytime soon despite Brown’s conference speech. Can we expect Brown to put more pressure on Blair or the Labour party for an earlier handover?
Siew Hua, Singapore
James Blitz: Yes I think we can expect Brown to put pressure on Blair to go earlier. Though Blair’s future ultimately depends on external events rather than any manoeuvring by the chancellor. If the situation on the ground in Iraq gets worse, if Labour does badly in local elections next year and if the Conservatives start to improve in the polls, Blair will come under pressure to go quickly. But if none of these things happen, Blair could stay in Downing Street until 2008 - or beyond. Brown must also be careful not to be seen to be trying too hard to destabilise the prime minister - that would anger Labour MPs and activists.
Do you think a Labour government under Gordon Brown would tack to the left? And does it need to? Or does the party need to keep the centre ground to hold off the tories?
James Blitz: I don’t think Labour would tack to the left under Gordon Brown. All the signs are that it will stay in the centre-ground. There are far fewer ideological differences between the prime minister and chancellor than people think. Labour does not need to do so either. Its major challenge at the next election - expected in 2009 - will come from the Conservatives. Labour would lose its majority if it lost just 25 seats. In at least 19 of those seats, the main challenger are the Tories.
Do you pick up any sense that there might be something in the idea that Peter Mandelson floated recently regarding the future leadership - namely, that the idea that Brown is the anointed successor could drag on for so long that people basically get fed up with it and some other character emerges from the pack (as Gaitskill did in the 50s to outpace the old-stagers who were thought to be the most likely leaders)? And if so, who would these be? Blair can’t surely believe that any other obvious ‘Blairite’ - eg Milburn - has any hope of inspiring the nation. Do the likes of Hain imagine themselves as leaders? Is it too early for the likes of Milliband realistically to be harbouring ambitions?
Peter Chapman, London
James Blitz: You are right to suggest that the longer Brown has to wait, the more likely it is that the contest to succeed Blair will open up in some way. There is no obvious rival now to Brown. I don’t see Milburn or Hain as credible candidates. The issue more is that Brown’s reputation could get tarnished with time. Britain, for example, faces lower economic growth this year than expected. Another risk is that Brown might one day face a credible candidate from the left. As yet, none has appeared.
The Labour Party has shelved plans for the revaluation of homes for Council Tax. What are its plans for the future of this tax and does it envisage an alternative?
James Blitz: The government has ordered a review into the future of local government financing. Last week it expanded the remit of this review to look at the structure of local government. So it is now unlikely to produce any conclusions for some time. Tony Blair is extremely wary of making any fundamental change to local taxation after the lessons of the poll tax.
Although it is still a hot topic for speculation in the press, the impending job switch between Blair and Brown seems to me to not be the tempest that some think. That’s because both men seem just a little too ‘serene’ in this drama and both seem pleased to have everyone speculate. I have a nagging suspicion that a deal has been reached, and the switch will occur (or Mr Blair will just step aside and ‘retire’) at a specified date - sooner rather than later. Your thoughts?
James Blitz: There is no deal between Blair and Brown over when the prime minister will stand down. Mr Brown has no idea when that will be. I am confident about that. And I am confident too that Mr Brown would prefer to see the prime minister go within the next year, while Mr Blair wants to go on for longer. There are real tensions on this issue of timing.
You are right, however, on one point: the Blair-Brown drama is at times something of a political soap opera and more than the papers make it out to be. There are fewer fundamental differences on policy between them than people think. Right now, their differences over the leadership - immediately following a third election victory for Labour - are not much of a problem. But they could accelerate into something more serious very quickly.
In reforming public services and his stance on Iraq, Tony Blair has angered some of the traditionalist Labour party members. Will Gordon Brown appeal more to those party members by focusing on core values or will he continue on the Blairite reform path? When will Brown most likely be party leader?
Arash Nazhad, Montreal, Canada
James Blitz: Tony Blair has clearly indicated this week that he wants to serve for several more years. He could stay until 2008, although I think a reasonable guess is that he will quit around May 2007 - when he has been in office for 10 years. He may have to go sooner if events in Iraq go badly on the ground.
Gordon Brown has made clear this week that he would lead the party from the centre and not tack to the left. But it is important to see how he responds over the next few months to new raft of reforms Blair wants to implement - especially allowing diverse providers into the secondary school sector. That will define more closely how much of a centrist the chancellor is.
In his speech at the Labour party conference Brown seems to have been at great pains to present himself as proceeding in exactly the same direction as Blair. How much do you believe this represents an accurate picture, and how much was it aimed at calming the nerves of those who might not be so happy with a more red-blooded variety of Labour policy?
James Blitz: I think Gordon Brown’s commitment to a free market economy, to economic reform, to free enterprise and open markets is genuine - there is no question about that. You are right - he certainly has to calm the nerves of parts of the British middle class who believe he is too left wing. As I said in answer to the previous question, there is still some lingering anxiety over where he stands on the introduction of market mechanisms into areas like health and education. His response to the schools white paper later this year - diversifying providers for secondary schools - is a key test of where he is on this.