Tony Blair gives his final speech as British prime minister to the Labour party annual conference in Manchester overnight. (Picture: Getty Images)

The eventual handover of Labour leadership in Britain moved a step closer this week, with Tony Blair’s last party conference as leader and an orgy of mutual tributes between him and his expected successor, chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown.

The tributes were not quite enough to hide the undercurrent of animosity. Brown and his supporters blame Blair for hanging on too long, supposedly breaching an agreement reached before they won office; while the Blair camp – most notably his wife Cherie – blame Brown for undermining the prime minister. Blair referred to the controversy light-heartedly last night when he said “At least I don’t have to worry about [Cherie] running off with the bloke next door.”

The similarity with the Howard-Costello dynamic is clear, but there are important differences as well. Peter Costello’s big advantage is the age difference: he knows that however long Howard stays around, he will always be 18 years younger. Blair and Brown, however, are contemporaries, so for Brown the threat has been that Blair would stay long enough for generational change to become an option, bypassing him altogether.

That now looks unlikely, but it has lent a hard edge to the contest at the top. Although Brown, like Costello, has never seriously looked like resigning to force a showdown, his supporters have been active in destabilisation. And since British parties leave more room for open dissent, Brown has become a focus for all those discontented with Blair’s policies – even though Brown has been closely associated with them as well, and is unlikely to do much different when he is in charge.

In both cases, there are serious doubts about the electoral appeal of the designated successor. But whereas in Australia it is pretty clear that no-one else would do better than Costello, British Labour MPs have a larger talent base to work with. Many of them will spend the next year casting around desperately for an alternative to Brown; they probably won’t find one, but things could still get interesting.

Peter Fray

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