Politics: Labour rushes to fix Brown-Blair rift after 'infantile' leaks

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The Independent Online
Peter Mandelson yesterday pulled out of a BBC radio interview to avoid questions about relations between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says Norman Lamont warned they would have to 'cool it' or risk real damage.

A concerted effort was made by ministers and "spin doctors" yesterday to end the speculation of a rift between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair as it threatened to run out of control. and inflict damage at the heart of the Government.

Mr Brown, who was in Brussels for an important European Union meeting, brushed aside questions about the alleged rift saying he would not be diverted from the serious business of government.

Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio, refused to go on the BBC lunchtime news when it became clear he would be interviewed about the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

After a weekend in which Mr Brown's friends were accused of "letting their egos run away with them", Mr Blair's official spokesman dismissed the reports as "silly" and said: "That doesn't diminish or change the Prime Minister's view of the Chancellor - that he is an extremely excellent Chancellor for whom he has immense regard professionally and personally."

The message last night was that the two men remain close, in spite of the reports. The spokesman also described as "shallow" the Brown biography by Paul Routledge, the political correspondent of the Independent on Sunday, which sparked the controversy.

Behind the denials lies a real fear that unless it is stopped now, there could be real damage done to the relationship which lies at the core of the Government.

Norman Lamont, the former Tory Chancellor, who had similar experiences with John Major, said: "This is largely exaggerated. It is a little local difficulty but if people go on talking it up, and taking pot shots at each other, it will become real. They have to cool it."

Downing Street compared the reports of the rift, allegedly over Mr Brown's grudge about being outmanoeuvred by Mr Blair for the leadership, with the "flavour of the week" speculation about Robin Cook, and his affair with his secretary; and about Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and how his son was cautioned for allegedly supplying cannabis.

At times over the weekend, the clash seemed to be more between the spokesmen for the two camps - Charley Whelan, the Chancellor's aide, and Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary - rather than between Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

Bob Marshall-Andrews, the Labour MP for Medway, said last night that suggestions that the Chancellor might be psychologically impaired were "puerile". Asked on Radio 4's PM programme about leaks in newspapers which have been sourced to Downing Street he said: "It is so depressingly infantile to brief against your senior colleagues or any of your colleagues in this way. And to start suggesting they are psychologically or mentally impaired is puerile.

"We think we know where it is coming from. It may very well be the usual unelected suspects. But at the end of the day the Prime Minister appoints these people and employs them and he has got to sort them out."