Furious Labour MPs attacked Gordon Brown last night for putting marginal seats at risk with his ambition to replace Tony Blair. They spoke out as the Prime Minister made a direct appeal for unity from the Chancellor's supporters who were blamed for stoking the rivalry between the two men.
Mr Blair and Mr Brown buried their differences with a show of unity at a packed meeting of Labour MPs in room 14 on the committee corridor of the Commons. They sat side by side to emphasise that they were determined not to allow the tensions over the leadership to destroy Labour's campaign for the general election.
However, Mr Brown and his supporters had to endure a barrage of criticism from Labour MPs who fear the Chancellor's ambitions to replace Mr Blair have jeopardised their seats at the general election.
Warnings that the party needed to be united, and to avoid damaging splits were made by Clive Soley, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Barry Sheerman, and Claire Ward, Blairite supporters with highly marginal seats that Labour will have to hold on to in order to secure a third massive majority.
Mr Soley expressed the frustrations in the Parliamentary Labour Party at the warring factions. Mr Sheerman warned that the splits could damage Labour support.
Stephen Pound, a backbencher, said: "Virtually every MP raised the [leadership] issue because it's becoming quite poisonous. There is a lot of anger because it could jeopardise what we are doing."
The former maverick Labour MP, Lord Campbell-Savours, told Mr Brown he should repudiate the most damaging section of the book, Brown's Britain by Robert Peston, that Mr Blair could never be trusted again.
"If you did not say it, deny it; if you did, withdraw it," he said.
Mr Blair told the MPs: "I know from everyone here in Cabinet and Government nothing is going to get in the way of a unified Labour Party with a unified position and winning the third term people desperately need."
Alongside Mr Blair and Mr Brown on the top table was the vast majority of the Cabinet, including John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, who is furious at the continued power struggle, which he has tried to avoid. Also at the meeting were Hilary Armstrong, the Labour chief whip, a strong supporter of the Prime Minister, John Reid, the Health Secretary, and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, who last summer persuaded Mr Blair not to carry out his threat to stand down before the general election.
Mr Reid criticised Mr Brown yesterday, suggesting he was motivated by personal ambition. Another minister said: "It is a sort of madness. It has to stop."
The hour-long meeting was so packed that some ministers had to stand outside in the corridor and missed Mr Blair's speech. Some of Mr Brown's allies also arrived late, but forced their way into the room to give the Chancellor their support.
A minister said: "Blair was brilliant. He did exactly what he had to do. He said we should be focused on winning the election, and now was the time for unity. It was one of the best speeches I have heard him make."
A left-wing rebel MP conceded that Mr Blair's performance had answered some of the anger felt at the destructive rivalry between Mr Blair and Mr Brown. "Blair cleverly turned the tables, by saying we have to be united against the Tories."
Mr Blair emerged from the meeting strengthened, and with Mr Brown's camp still being blamed for weekend damage. Mr Blair will reinforce his authority on Thursday with a speech unequivocally setting out a new Labour agenda for the general election. Mr Blair will outline key themes for the election including tougher immigration and asylum controls.
The fear now is that the rivalry has developed into divergent ideologies, with Mr Brown strongly opposing Mr Blair's passionate belief in providing more choice for consumers to improve public services. He will rule out any U-turn.
One Labour MP said: "They must stop their shenanigans and get on with the serious business of government. They were all a bit taken aback. They got it from every barrel."
MPs said fire from backbenchers was aimed at both Blair and Brown over their relationship. One said: "The message was: 'you come here and talk to us about discipline, but it's time to show some'."
Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, said: "It was a right royal b*****king, richly deserved."
- More about:
- Labour Party