Cunningham fails to stop the feuding

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT attempted to repair the damage of its worst week in office yesterday with a stern warning to ministers to end the in-fighting that accompanied the resignation of Peter Mandelson.

The Cabinet's "enforcer", Jack Cunningham, said anonymous and unauthorised briefings by spin-doctors in recent weeks had clouded the message of Labour's key manifesto policies on jobs, health and education.

Yet as he sought to draw a line under the Mandelson affair, speculation at Westminster centred on Tony Blair's failure to appoint a replacement for Geoffrey Robinson, who quit as paymaster-general last week after he was revealed as the source of Mr Mandelson's loan. Commentators regard it as highly unusual that he has not been replaced.

Geoff Hoon, Minister of State in the Lord Chancellor's Department, was widely expected to take up the job, despite objections from Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, that he needed him to steer crucial legal reforms through the Commons.

The appointment of Mr Hoon, a well-known Blairite, may also be opposed by the Gordon Brown camp. He could be seen as a replacement for Stephen Byers - the former chief secretary to the treasury who replaced Mr Mandelson as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry - as the Prime Minister's eyes and ears in the Chancellor's department.

Party sources claimed yesterday that Mr Blair may want to downgrade the role of paymaster-general or incorporate it into another minister's portfolio in a deliberate attempt to curb the influence of Mr Brown. As Mr Robinson received no government salary, it may also be too costly to fill his post this year.

In what was seen as a clear shot across the bows of Charlie Whelan, the Chancellor's press spokesman, who has been accused of leaking information about Mr Mandelson, Mr Cunningham said yesterday that unauthorised briefings "ought to stop". He admitted for the first time that there were ministers who wanted to "conduct their own agenda" even if it conflicted with the aims of the Government. "It cannot be allowed to continue and we have to put an end to it," he said.

"There have been briefings from time to time which have been damaging to the Government. Collectively, unauthorised briefings have caused trouble for the Government, are causing trouble, and ought to stop."

Mr Cunningham's comments are the most explicit indication yet that the Chancellor may have to fire Mr Whelan.

The Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Malcolm Bruce, said of the Government's disarray: "You cannot have effective government by faction. If Mr Blair cannot control a Treasury press officer, how can he hope to run the country?"

John Redwood, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, added: "There is a civil war at the very top of this government. The Prime Minister needs to return from his holiday and assert his authority."