Blair: `My ministers are united'

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR sought yesterday to reassert his authority over his feuding Cabinet and to put his New Labour project back on course by reaffirming his strong personal alliance with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

As he started a three-day visit to South Africa, the Prime Minister quashed speculation about a change of direction following the resignation of the arch-moderniser, Peter Mandelson, from the Cabinet. "The course is unchanged," he said.

Mr Blair said he had already cleared the air with colleagues and did not plan to raise the recent in-fighting at next week's cabinet meeting. "As far as I am concerned, it is over. These things happen but government goes on."

However, Mr Blair is facing growing demands from the Cabinet for a more collective style of decision-making. Some ministers complain that he allows little debate at the weekly session, because decisions have already been taken by Downing Street and individual ministers.

"This is a good moment for a change of gear," one cabinet minister said yesterday. "After 18 months ... we should now be more involved in the strategic decisions."

Ministers also complain that Mr Brown allows little input into economic policy-making.

Yesterday Mr Blair praised Mr Brown and moved to cement their partnership after faction-fighting was blamed for the decision by Charlie Whelan, the Chancellor's press secretary, to leave his job.

"Gordon's work was crucial to the creation of New Labour and winning the election. We have always worked as a team and will always work as a team ... this partnership is built to last," Mr Blair said. He insisted that he and Mr Brown were "closer than any chancellor and prime minister in living memory" and that Labour was "more ideologically united than at any time in its history".

Mr Blair insisted that his party's links with the Liberal Democrats would deepen, dashing the hopes of some Labour MPs following the departure of Mr Mandelson, a keen advocate of co-operation. "We are working closer and that will stay," he said.

Mr Blair denied any rift between him and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, following Mr Prescott's interview in The Independent last week in which he called for the Government to get away from spin-doctoring and back to "substance".

Mr Blair made it clear there would be no return to "tax and spend" policies, despite Mr Prescott's declaration that the Government was now using public spending "to uphold the economy in the traditional Keynesian way". But he was said to be "relaxed" about Mr Prescott's remarks. Yesterday Mr Prescott dismissed as "nonsense" the idea that he had formed a pact with Mr Brown.

Mr Blair said: "I am not denying it has been a difficult week or two but these things happen. The important thing is that the Government stays focused on the things that really matter to people."