Harman brings down the curtain on 'historic' conference

Harman has a guaranteed seat on the Cabinet as deputy leader
Harman has a guaranteed seat on the Cabinet as deputy leader

By Ian Dunt

Harriet Harman has brought an "historic" Labour conference to a close with an outspoken speech rallying the party after six tough days in Manchester.

The deputy leader insisted the party was "sober" about the challenges ahead of it, but united behind its new leader.

"This has been a historic conference and it's been a rollercoaster of emotions," she said.

"Conference, the last five days have certainly been dramatic but we leave Manchester with a new leader and a laser focus on the future.

Read politics.co.uk's fantasy shadow Cabinet

"We're sobered by the scale of the challenge that lies ahead but we're fortified by the energy and determination of our new leader Ed Miliband," she continued.

"Our new leader is intelligent, courageous and he has a good heart. We will all be united in support for him."

But Ms Harman, who stood in as leader during the transition period, was also eager to praise David Miliband, who stepped down from front bench politics yesterday.

"He has been a towering figure in our party and it is certain that the work that he has started - such as the army of community organisers - will go forward," she told the hall.

"The Labour party is proud of him. We are proud of what he did in government. And I know we will be proud of what he does in the future.

"Conference - though things are hard - we have a fantastic team of Labour MPs. The contest for our leadership is over. The contest for the future of the country begins."

The speech closed a conference full of intrigue, drama and speculation, which ended with Ed Miliband asserting his control over the party by barring Nick Brown from the chief whip's role while his brother bowed out of his leadership team.

The six-day affair began with the nail-biting finish to the Labour leadership contest, which unsettled the party by forcing the winner, Ed Miliband, to rely on union and second preference votes.

Reactions: Ed Miliband leadership victory

Sketch: Ed Miliband's dazed triumph

Comment: Ed Miliband is more dangerous than they think

The drama continued with a well-received speech from David Miliband the next day, prompting many members to wonder if they backed the right brother.

David Miliband sketch: Neither rebellion nor loyalty

Even Ed Miliband's pivotal keynote speech, which saw the new leader draw a line under Labour's support for City paycheques and the Iraq war, was derailed when media attention focused on David Miliband's irritated reaction.

Ed Miliband speech: Reactions

Ed Miliband speech: In full

Events yesterday where dominated by speculation about his future - speculation that was put to bed when he finally confirmed he would not stand for shadow Cabinet and would remain on the backbenches.

David Miliband stands down: Full statement

To reflect the impact of the drama on the party, Ms Harman is not expected to deliver the traditional light-hearted affair which Labour has come to expect from a closing speech.

Instead, she is expected to admit that the conference has been a "rollercoaster of emotions" and insist that Labour focus sharply on the future.

Speaking to the BBC ahead of the speech, she denied that Labour's leadership team had been drastically weakened by David Miliband's decision to retreat to the backbenches.

"You could tell that there was going to be a focus all the time on trying to find divisions and distinctions between David and Ed," she said.

"And I think David was quite sensible to say 'the party has chosen Ed Miliband as a leader and it is right for him to have the space to go forward and really think through the lessons of why we were defeated in the election'.

"I think it's the sort of microscopic focus on every aside that is made that is one of the reasons why David feels that, in order to give Ed the space to lead the party after a close contest, he has to step back on to the back benches for a while."

Yesterday, Ed Miliband made his first move to take control of the party. He prevented the Brownite Nick Brown from keeping the chief whip job and instead secured Rosie Winterton in the role.

He will allocate the shadow Cabinet roles once elections for the 18 posts are completed. Forty-nine MPs are standing in the contest.

Labour MPs standing for shadow Cabinet: Full list


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.