Watching Tony Blair electrify his party conference with a bravura, perfectly pitched speech that left them cheering and in tears, it felt little different from those heady early days of Britain's New Labour. And to judge from the waterfall of "bold, radical" policy ideas that spouted during the week from baby-faced ministers such as David Miliband and James Purnell, the party's next generation of leaders has plenty of steam.
That was the upbeat side of Labour's annual conference last week in Manchester. But its evil twin lurked close by. Delegates seemed afflicted with a cocktail of maladies that until recently were Conservative diseases: feuding, plotting, depression, exhaustion. Almost 10 years in power is a long time, and it has dulled Labour's survival instinct.
Regardless of his star qualities, Blair remains in office only by having promised to leave it within a year. His Iraq-fueled fall from grace, sped by scandals and missteps, has left 70% of voters saying it's "time for a change." Last week police interviewed his political gatekeeper Ruth Turner about whether Labour sold peerages to big donors, part of an inquiry that has led to the arrest of three people (all deny wrongdoing). But Blair clings to 10 Downing Street, convinced he can still burnish his legacy with new domestic initiatives, as well as a plunge into Middle East peacemaking that leaves even British diplomats dubious about what leverage he can bring to bear.
As a result, Labour floats in a semi-leaderless limbo the ideal conditions for conspiracies against the heir apparent, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, 55. After a clunky conference speech, plenty of delegates worried that his dour Scottish solidity would pale against the fresh-faced ease of David Cameron, the 39-year-old Tory leader. An ICM poll shows voters already think Cameron will make a better Prime Minister, and that Labour is out of ideas and more divided than the Tories.
One Labour delegate brushed all that away: "Voters will see the Tories are stealing our ideas and don't have our substance." But that's exactly what Conservatives used to say about Blair as he crushed them in three elections. At this week's Tory conference, Cameron is pushing his substance-lite, eye-catching ways of recasting the party's brand, which have included visits to glaciers, more distance from George W. Bush and a new logo based on a tree. But back at Labour, fighting between Brownites and Blairites continues unabated.
Bill Clinton who botched his own handoff to Al Gore was brought in to admonish delegates to "stay in the future business, and the people will get it"; a sensible warning, but probably insufficient to rein in the discord. The truest note of the week was struck by someone in Brown's inner circle, who should be enthusiastic about being on No. 10's threshold. "I can't figure out why I'm so depressed," says the ardent Brownite.