Ailing Brown turns to Campbell and Mandelson to mastermind his fightback

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown has turned to key allies of Tony Blair, including his former communications director Alastair Campbell, for advice on how to plot a fightback against the Conservatives.

The Prime Minister has also held talks in recent weeks with three ultra-Blairites previously regarded as enemies, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, who are campaigning for a Blairite agenda from the back benches, and Peter Mandelson, who was frozen out by Mr Brown after backing Mr Blair over him for the Labour leadership 14 years ago.

Mr Brown has floated the idea of Mr Campbell taking a formal role but the former spin doctor has ruled out a return to No 10. He left in 2003, amid concern he had "become the story" after his war of words with the BBC over allegations that No 10 "sexed up" a government dossier on Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction."

As he tries to halt Labour's slide towards election defeat, the Prime Minister is now talking regularly to Mr Campbell, who is happy to give informal advice but is reluctant to return to full-time politics. "He has got his life back," one friend said yesterday.

Mr Campbell, who has published the first instalment of his diaries, is writing two novels, accepts public speaking engagements, does charity work for Leukaemia Research and can spend more time with his family than he could in his old job. He addresses local Labour parties and is helping to organise a Labour fundraising event at Wembley Stadium next Thursday. While many Labour MPs are pessimistic about the party's prospects, Mr Campbell believes it can recover under Mr Brown and win a fourth term.

Although he would campaign for Labour at the next election, friends admit it "might be too late" to wait until then because the party's position in the opinion polls is so dire. They say he might do more for Mr Brown, but without taking up a formal post.

Although he was sometimes caught up in rows with Mr Brown during his nine years with Mr Blair, Mr Campbell is tribally loyal to Labour. "He is a leaderite, not a Blairite," said one Labour MP.

One ally of Mr Brown said: "He values Alastair's experience and his thoughts on a particular issue," one said. "Alastair is very good at saying what is the best way to handle something, such as the strategic attack on the Tories."

The Prime Minister's rapprochement with Mr Milburn, Mr Byers and Mr Mandelson is more surprising. Mr Milburn and Mr Byers, who have both urged Mr Brown not to water down Blairite reforms to public services, have described in the past by Brown aides as "the usual suspects".

Both men are now being consulted by Mr Brown on public services and a meeting with Mr Milburn helped to shape the Prime Minister's speech on social mobility last week. Although Blairites initially suspected Mr Brown's regular telephone calls were designed to "keep them sweet" so they did not criticise him, they are convinced he is genuinely interested in their reform proposals. "Gordon loves to talk things through, to look at things from every angle; he is very open to ideas," one said.

But the new warmth towards the Blairites may have its limits. Mr Brown has not patched up relations with the former home secretary Charles Clarke, who has been more critical of him. And speculation that Mr Milburn may be recalled to the Cabinet in the autumn if Mr Brown reshuffles his pack may be premature. He is likely to focus on bringing on a younger generation of ministers.

Mr Brown and Mr Mandelson may have been drawn together by events – in the form of the world trade talks, where they are on the same side of the fence in a battle against Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French President has attacked Mr Mandelson, the EU Trade commissioner, for offering cuts in farm import tariffs, even though that is the policy agreed by the EU. Mr Brown is solidly behind Mr Mandelson.

The emergence of a "Blairites for Brown" group may provoke criticism from some Labour MPs, who worry that conflicting advice from different groups contributes to a lack of a clear strategic direction for the Government.

Labour sources say there is still tension inside Downing Street between an "old guard" of close aides who transferred with Mr Brown from the Treasury and a "new guard" headed by Stephen Carter, a former public relations executive and CEO of the media regulator Ofcom.

The mutual suspicion is so great that, when Damian McBride, one of the "old guard," leaves his office to speak on his mobile phone, some of the "new guard" suspect he is briefing against them. In fact, he only does so because the signal in the office is so bad he can barely conduct a conversation.

People in both camps insist that, after a shaky start, they are working harmoniously. Aides dismiss chatter on the Whitehall grapevine of "blood, sweat and tears" inside a Downing Street bunker as Labour, and Mr Brown, sink to new lows in the polls – pointing to the successful launch of Lord Darzi's health reforms this week.

Although some Labour critics fear Mr Carter and his fellow recruits from PR lack political nous, they may have one advantage. As one No 10 staffer quipped: "They don't realise how bad things are, because they have never been here before."

Changing of the guard

THE OLD GUARD...

Sue Nye

Gordon Brown's long-standing gatekeeper and now director of government relations.

Damian McBride

Once a civil servant at the Treasury, now Brown's political spin doctor; dubbed "McPoison".

Mike Ellam

Former Treasury high-flyer who is now Brown's official spokesman.

Ian Austin

Brown's parliamentary private secretary, acting as his "eyes and ears" in the Commons.

THE NEW GUARD...

Stephen Carter

Brown's £140,000-a-year chief of strategy and principal adviser.

Jeremy Haywood

Civil servant lured back to Cabinet Office from Morgan Stanley; now No 10's first permanent secretary.

David Muir

Replaced Spencer Livermore, who walked out as Brown's director of strategy after Carter took his office.

Jennifer Moses

Former director of lingerie firm Agent Provocateur, brought in to spice up long-term policies.

BLAIRITES FOR BROWN?

Alastair Campbell

Tony Blair's former director of communications and strategy.

Alan Milburn

Clashed with Chancellor Brown while Health Secretary; now chipping in on public service reforms.

Stephen Byers

Double act with Milburn as "outriders" for the Blair project; Brown now open to his ideas.

Peter Mandelson

Distrusted by Brown since backing Blair after John Smith died in 1994; no longer in deep freeze.

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