FOR the first time Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour Party is under serious scrutiny.

Against this background, there was more interest than usual in the traditional Monday conference address by the Chancellor, the only potential pretender to the party throne.

It was tempting, therefore, to study the speech in detail, seeing whether Gordon Brown was setting out his stall, currying favour with the rank-and-file who will elect Mr Blair's successor whenever that may be.

Mr Brown referred to New Labour only once. He referred to Labour on 62 occasions.

He committed himself to the party's traditional values and reflected on the idealism of Labour's pioneers.

Topped by a promise of new investment in public services, it was an Old Labour speech guaranteed to receive the thunderous applause and standing ovation it duly received.

Indeed, it was even calculated to win over the trade union leaders who were busy organising a demonstration about Iraq and the loss of manufacturing jobs outside the conference.

But this was not the speech of a leadership challenger. Mr Brown is offering no alternative to the Blairite agenda.

Mr Brown is for reform of the Labour Party from within, while Mr Blair is for creating a New Labour Party. Essentially, however, they have arrived at the same political conclusions, but via different routes.

Yesterday, Mr Brown reached out to the party membership, where he retains his political roots and where he has a natural affinity.

The Prime Minister has never been as comfortable within the Labour movement as his Chancellor. In his speech today Mr Blair will be reaching beyond the delegates in the conference hall, to the people of the country where his power base lies.

Essentially, however, the message from the two men is the same.

There were no rash promises of change from the Chancellor. And the Prime Minister today will re-iterate that there will be no compromise on the key issues of Iraq, tuition fees and foundation hospitals.

While there may be public concern about these policies, there appears to be unanimity among the leadership, which the Conservatives will struggle to emulate at their conference next week.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown remain a powerful political force. As long as they retain a unity of purpose, they will stifle the malcontents within Labour ranks and be on course to deliver an historic third term of office for the party.