Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is about to attempt the most difficult conjuring trick in politics: to present himself as a brand new leader of his party and country while remaining faithful and true to his incredibly successful and still popular successor. Brown needs a fresh set of policies to reenergize the demoralized Labor while not departing from those of Tony Blair, of which he was a co-author.
His keynote address at the Labor Conference in Manchester on Monday was supposed to be his first major step toward charting his new territory. But despite the lengthy standing ovation (two minutes and 45 seconds) that followed his 37-minute speech and the plaudits he earned from Laborites and political commentators, there was little of substance there.
Brown reaffirmed his allegiance to the New Labor manifesto, said a lot of warm words about his long-time partner/rival Blair, and gave what was almost an American-style political speech, full of allusions to his parents and other good, decent, ordinary folk.
The cover story of the conservative weekly The Spectator this week reported that not even Brown's close political allies know what his policies as prime minister might be. These were said to be a closely guarded secret among a circle of only eight advisers and henchmen. No one else was let in by Monday's speech.
And yet there were a number of interesting hints, not so much in what was said but in the emphases - those parts of the Blair agenda that Brown dwelled upon and those that he preferred to gloss over.
In these there might also be the beginning of the answer to the question "Where does the man who, barring earthquakes, will be the prime minister of Britain a year from now, stand on Israel? How much will be missing of our staunch ally Tony?"
To begin with, there are a number of reasons to be optimistic about Brown's Zionism. His father, John, was a minister of the Church of Scotland, known for being very pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, who often visited Israel. Brown said in his speech that his parents were "my inspiration. The reason I am in politics. And all I believe and all I try to do come from the values I learned from them."
Brown Junior himself visited Israel last year for a whirlwind trip that was dedicated mainly to joint talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on economic cooperation. But over the years he has been close to the British Jewish community and last year announced a special grant to enable British high-school students to visit Holocaust death camp sites. Even so, Brown has rarely made any clear foreign policy statements on the Middle East, not only on the Israel-Arab conflict but on the two major wars fought by his government - Iraq and Afghanistan.
Much more might have been expected from the man who was number two in the government for more than nine years. But despite the often tempestuous relationship with Blair, the issue on which Brown has been most loyal has been foreign policy - precisely the issue on which Blair has suffered the most damage inside his own party and in British public opinion.
There are those who believe that Brown, once he finally holds the reins of power, might announce a dramatic change and distance himself from Blair's affiliation with the White House, recall British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and be less supportive of Israel.
One of the contributing factors to such an about-face would be the inherent unpopularity of Blair's coziness with Washington and his Middle East policy, both within Labor and in the United Kingdom in general. This is an area of policy where Brown could distance himself from Blair without suffering too much political damage.
Another factor, of course, would be the next general elections, expected to be much tighter than those that Blair won in May 2005. The support of Britain's growing Muslim community is in no way guaranteed to Labor, with a host of radical left-wing parties jostling for space and a Liberal Democrat Party that is to the left of Labor on foreign policy. Even the Conservatives are making worrisome noises lately under their young and attractive leader, David Cameron, who joined the "disproportionate" chorus of criticism against Israel during the Lebanon war. Cameron has also made clear in recent weeks that a future Conservative government would not take its foreign policy cue from the US.
It is for all these reasons - and the fact that it would probably be politically expedient for Brown to be less like his predecessor when it comes to the Middle East - that what he did choose to say Monday at the Labor Conference is worth examining.
Brown stressed that "the renewal of New Labor will be founded onâ€¦ the need for global cooperation in the fight against terrorism, never anti-Americanism." That statement can't have gone down well with the party's old left-wing guard, and nor could other parts of the speech in which he committed his party to taking any necessary steps and finding all necessary resources to ensure that there is no safe haven for terrorists, in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else, and no hiding place for terrorist finance.
Brown called for urgent steps to stop the genocide in Darfur and pledged support for Blair's proposals for a peace plan in the Middle East, but he didn't even mention the suffering of the Palestinians, a sine qua non in any major policy speech. Neither did he waste very much soft soap on mollycoddling the British Muslims but instead expressed support for anti-terror steps, such as the British anathema of identity cards and giving the government power to detain terror suspects for more than 28 days without trial.
The general feeling is that Brown's speech was more about style than substance, its objective to project a softer image of the not overly popular prime minister-in-waiting. His real plans still remain strictly confidential, but at least where they concern our particular neck of the woods, the chancellor seems to have given something away, and it doesn't sound too bad.