Tony Blair yesterday testily dismissed as newspaper "tittle-tattle" reports that deputy leader John Prescott was being sidelined, and urged shadow Cabinet members at a special meeting not to allow the summer's "difficulties" to blunt their attack on the Government.
The Labour leader sought to focus attention on the substance of the party's economic policies as he launched the "New Labour-New Britain Business Tour" which will take him and his economic team of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Jack Cunningham to 18 towns and cities in the next two months.
But the absence of Mr Prescott from the news conference prompted a bad- tempered exchange with journalists who asked about the state of Mr Blair's relationship with his deputy. "I don't think I've read anything quite so silly as some of the things in the newspapers this morning ... You should remember that it was John Prescott and I who put through the biggest change in the Labour Party's constitution in the party's history. And we did it together. That is the best testament we can put," Mr Blair said.
Asked why Mr Prescott was not on the platform, Mr Blair responded crisply: "He's in Birmingham, putting the Labour Party's case."
Mr Prescott - who had in fact already returned for the shadow Cabinet meeting - later sat at Mr Blair's side as the Labour leader set out the themes for the Labour conference in two weeks' time. Gez Sagar, hired last week by Mr Prescott as his personal press officer, said the deputy leader had supportively "echoed" Mr Blair's strictures about not being "blown off course".
The shadow Cabinet was presented with polling data said to show that the murmurings against Mr Blair's leadership over the summer had not dented Labour's lead. A spokesman for Mr Blair said the meeting approved a strategy to counter Conservative "scare stories" about Labour with "a lot of campaigning on what Britain will be like if the Tories win again".
But Mr Blair, at the launch of the business tour, said that the purpose of this year's Labour conference was "to speak in direct terms to the British people and offer the commitment of a Labour government to specific things that can help change this country".
He went on: "People aren't interested in all this tittle-tattle in the papers this morning - what they want to know about the Labour government is what is it going to do about the economy, about industry, about the education and health services, about crime, the problems of law and order on our streets, about the disaffection from politics. These are the real issues."
His spokesman promised: "At the end of conference week you should be clear about what Tony means when he talks about New Britain." But he refused to comment on whether costings would finally be attached to the "specific policy commitments" that will be announced in Brighton.
Mr Blair also dismissed the report in yesterday's Scotsman that Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, was his choice for party chief whip - a vital post in government.
"It is one of many stories which caused me amazement this morning," Mr Blair said.