LONDON -- This is the time of year when Britain's political leaders present themselves to their parties, in promise, hope or apology, trying to persuade their bedrock followers that strategies are on course, pledges will be redeemed and the spoils of high office beckon.
Indeed, while Americans remain in thrall to the presidential ballot next month, Britain's autumnal party conferences resemble the first whistle of a new soccer season, consigning old setbacks to memory and foretelling new tussles.
But there is another parallel to be drawn with some great drama of conspiracy and betrayal -- Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," perhaps, at the point where Caesar ponders the trustworthiness of his entourage: "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous."
It is tempting to imagine that every political leader harbors similar fretful and potentially prophetic musings about who would play the Cassius or Brutus of their own legions.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, head of the junior coalition partner, for instance, looks warily over his shoulder at Business Secretary Vince Cable, a fellow Liberal Democrat; the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, seems uneasy at the maneuverings of the London mayor, Boris Johnson; and, most Shakespearean of all, Ed Miliband, the opposition Labour leader, who beat his own elder brother David to the top job in 2010, is frequently challenged to say whether this sibling struggle is settled.
At a time when Britain, like the rest of Europe, is questing for guides of Moses-like stature to lead it to a promised land of debt-free living and restored prosperity, the party conclaves, that is to say, are driven by a narrower, more introverted struggle, raising questions about the stature of leadership itself in a land that once produced visionaries like Winston Churchill.
Britons are used to watching internecine duels: For a decade, Labour's Gordon Brown circled Tony Blair before finally taking over as prime minister in 2007. But the kaleidoscope of affiliations has turned. The 2010 election that thrust Labour from office locked a Conservative-led coalition into an unfamiliar and awkward minuet of inner-party rivalry until the next national battle scheduled in 2015.
At his party conference in the southern resort of Brighton last month, Mr. Clegg made his move to bolster his position, offering a much-derided apology for breaking a campaign pledge to resist increases in college tuition fees. His mea culpa backfired, and his value as a coalition partner was diminished. Mr. Cameron "still needs the Lib Dems," the columnist John Rentoul concluded in The Independent. "But he does not necessarily need Clegg."
Unused to the glare of government, the Liberal Democrats had anyhow forfeited support by sharing office with the ideologically distinct Conservatives, accepting policy retreats they would once have resisted. "However illogical," Mr. Rentoul said, "a change of leadership would let the Lib Dems parcel up the unpopular baggage of being in coalition and throw it overboard."
Equally, some Conservatives gathering for their conference this week in Birmingham sense that Mr. Johnson, while neither particularly lean nor hungry-looking, would be more of a vote winner than his fellow old Etonian, Mr. Cameron.
"Over the next three years, we can expect Johnson to bend every sinew to demonstrate that he is the party's greatest electoral asset and the one man who could lead it to an overall majority," Mr. Johnson's biographer, Andrew Gimson, wrote in The New Statesman.
"He will try to become the person to whom the party feels compelled to turn. It is notable that he is already spoken of as a man for the top job or for no job at all. If he does one day supplant Cameron, he will regard it as belated recognition of his natural supremacy."
Perhaps the only leader breathing a little more easily is Mr. Miliband, whose speech last week to the party conference in the northern city of Manchester alarmed the Conservatives with its fluency and warm reception. Mr. Miliband's brother David even went so far as to say: "Ed is doing a great job."
But in this world of Machiavellian calculation, some skeptics say the elder brother may simply be biding his time, even as Ed Miliband's supporters depict the conference speech as an epiphany, revealing what the columnist Polly Toynbee in The Guardian called the "breathtaking bravura" of "a man with the hunger and the wit to win."
However, fleetingly, the 42-year-old Labour leader did seem to cast himself in a new light -- no longer as a distant intellectual lacking charisma or evident leadership qualities but as the best-placed campaigner to pursue what he called "one nation" politics embracing all social groups and what his critics described as thinly veiled class struggle.
Mr. Miliband depicted Mr. Cameron's party as aloof, remote, snobbish -- characteristics enhanced recently when a senior Conservative official castigated the police guarding No. 10 Downing Street as "plebs," the same, nonpatrician plebeians, in other words, as those who populated Caesar's Rome.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.