Brown hints he may not seek leadership: Shadow Chancellor puts party unity and friendship first

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GORDON BROWN yesterday gave the clearest signal so far in the Labour leadership race that he may stand aside to avoid divisions in the party.

The shadow Chancellor and Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, this week are reviewing their chances of winning the leadership. It is increasingly likely that one will not stand, unless they believe they can sustain a contest without threatening party unity.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown have told colleagues that the party comes first. Their close friendship 'will not be put on the line' by a contest, Labour sources said last night.

'I will make my decision as I believe my colleagues will make the decision on what is necessary for Labour to win the next election. I don't think anybody's personal interests should come before what is the greatest public endeavour that the Labour Party is engaged in - that is to return a government to power that is interested in creating the economic efficiency and social justice that this country needs,' Mr Brown said on BBC radio.

Friends said he had not finally ruled himself out. Mr Brown and Mr Blair have been in close contact over the weekend and will continue consultations this week before deciding whether one or both should stand.

Although Mr Blair is the clear favourite in opinion polls, and with the bookmakers, their private soundings suggest support is evenly balanced within the parliamentary party. Each is said to have the support of about six members of the Shadow Cabinet and each has the backing of about 80 MPs, with a similar share of support among MEPs. The two camps are claiming that opinion among trade union leaders is fairly evenly divided. The constituencies, which hold a third of the electoral college votes, are believed to favour Mr Blair.