Well, well, well... Seems like the Chancellor's all over the shop in the run-up to the Labour Conference. Following yesterday's fluff-piece in the Guardian magazine, today Gordon Brown gets a surprsingly favourable interview in the pro-Tory Telegraph (registration required) and the Sunday Times magazine runs a long article which effectively concludes that Gordon Brown is the best Chancellor of the Exchequer pretty much ever:
"Following the ERM humiliation, our economic record has enjoyed the longest period of growth for at least 200 years and a performance superior to most of our competitors for the first time in the modern era... The Treasury, more than any other government department, affects all our lives. The Gordon Brown era... has seen it extend its influence greatly. The Treasury has masterminded the huge increase in funding for health and education... It can claim to be presiding over a new golden age of prosperity for our households."
What does this all point to for the Conference? The media-friendly Blair has kept a low profile since the Ken Bigley kidnapping business; Brown usually tries to stay away from the limelight, and rarely gives interviews, now two come along at once. Why is he allowing the media spotlight to focus on him once again? Are there moves afoot in the Brown camp? Will this conference finally see the long-speculated about leadership challenge?
It is doubtful a direct challenge will happen - Brown's far too astute to risk a contentious leadership battle with (almost certainly) less than a year to go before a General Election. But if, as the Telegraph suggests and as was reported a couple of weeks back, Blair really has been considering stepping down, could the infamous Granita deal finally be amicably concluded?
The only worry is the US elections. If Bush stays in, as looks increasingly likely, keeping Blair as PM would be sensible for the extremely (scarily?) close relationship the two men seem to have built up. If Kerry gets in, it makes far, far more sense for Brown to take over - he and Kerry are already close friends, and together they can set about clearing up the messes the Blair/Bush partnership has created.
Ignoring the impact of diplomatic relations, if Blair were to announce that he is going to step aside in favour of Brown after the next General Election, it could be a very sound move in terms of building domestic support. Blair's current unpopularity threatens to damage Labour in the polls and perhaps seriously threaten the party's majority in the Commons, whereas Brown is fairly clear of blame over the whole Iraq thing and continues to be as popular and apparently as successful as ever.
By announcing he'll step aside after the election, Blair could spin it that any seat losses were due to the leadership uncertainty, rather than on the public's dislike for him and his policies. At the same time he can ensure that Labour maintains the appearance of a united front - and that the party continues to be fronted by one of the most successful political figureheads of the post-war era throughout the run-up to the election. Meanwhile, via interviews, television appearances, positive comments from unlikely sources and the like, Brown can slowly build up the public's perception of him to one which more closely matches that of a potential Prime Minister - the loving, affable, hard-working and intelligent family man that he apparently is.
This conference could turn out to be interesting...