Media mogul keeps Brown and Cameron guessing

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As Tony Blair enters the last phase of his time in Downing Street, a battle has broken out for Rupert Murdoch's affections between the two men who will be putting themselves forward as prime minister at the next election.

For now, Gordon Brown appears to be the front-runner but David Cameron is snapping at his heels. The Tory leader is said have been "desperate" to secure an invitation to Pebble Beach when he thought that the Chancellor was going to accompany Mr Blair. Mr Murdoch then decided to play safe by inviting neither would-be prime minister.

The media mogul seems to be enjoying the attention. He may even be teasing them a little about which way he will jump at the next election.

Last month, Mr Murdoch hinted that he might switch sides. Asked by The Australian whether he might support Mr Cameron, he replied: "Oh yes." He added: "We've been a big supporter of Tony on big issues, he's been a very courageous world leader. But for no other reason than the dynamics of British politics we would like to see, [for] at least a year to 18 months, a stand-off between Gordon Brown and David Cameron so we can decide which of those most coincides with our views."

Last weekend, Mr Murdoch was less flattering about Mr Cameron. Asked what he thought of him on US television, he replied: "Not much. He's bright. He's quick. I do not know what substance is there or what he really believes."

Westminster whispers suggest Mr Murdoch was not too impressed when the Tory leader paid a flying visit to his recent summer party in London. Some insiders say he may regard George Osborne, the even younger shadow Chancellor, as a more natural heir to Margaret Thatcher. He stayed much longer at the party.

Mr Murdoch said: "I like Brown very much - on a personal level." It is clear, though, that he will be watching Mr Brown's early days in No 10 closely for any hints of a shift away from Mr Blair's approach. Some Labour MPs fear that Mr Brown's leeway will be limited. "With an election to win, he'll concentrate on two audiences -- Middle England and Rupert Murdoch," one said.

Murdoch watchers predict that he will make a commercial rather than a political judgement. He will want to back a winner and if the election is too close to call, with four newspapers at his disposal, he could always split his vote.