Another book and another chapter in the feud

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Indy Politics

The explosive claims in the latest book to document the tensions between the Government's two senior figures have brought relations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to a new low.

The jealousies and rivalries between the former friends have long been part of the "background noise" at Westminster. Although a poll yesterday confirmed that Labour retained a comfortable lead among voters, party MPs are beginning to fear the feud could eat into government support at the election expected in May.

In his book Brown's Britain Robert Peston makes the damning claim that trust between the two men has virtually broken down. Although the suggestion is not new, it has added colour and detail, with Peston reporting that Mr Brown lambasted the Prime Minister for reneging on a promise to quit Downing Street last year. He is said to have raged: "There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe." Mr Blair allegedly retorted by accusing the Chancellor of trying to undermine him throughout 2004 as he prepared to announce his planned retirement as leader.

The claims give a dramatic new context to last week's outbreak of the "TBGBs" caused by Downing Street's extraordinary decision to stage a prime ministerial press conference at precisely the same time as a speech by Mr Brown on tackling Third World debt.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair is reported to be considering moving the Chancellor, after the election, to a new "super-department" combining the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.

Peston, a financial journalist known to be close to Brown confidants, alleges that Mr Blair told the Chancellor in November 2003 he felt he had lost voters' trust over his decision to take Britain to war in Iraq. He had therefore decided to step down before the next election, but needed Mr Brown's help to get through a difficult year.

The book says Mr Blair told the Chancellor last March that he had decided to "pre-announce" a decision to step down in the autumn. Mr Brown is said to have told him this was "crazy". The Prime Minister's closest cabinet allies - John Reid, the Health Secretary, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, and Lord Falconer of Thoroton - got wind of the plan and, along with Cherie Blair, talked him out of it.

Relations deteriorated further in September when Alan Milburn, a Blairite, was brought back to the Cabinet. Three weeks later, the book claims, Mr Blair privately accused the Chancellor of trying to undermine him. The next day, the Prime Minister announced he would fight the next election but, if re-elected, step down before the end of the subsequent parliament. Brown supporters, according to Peston, accuse Mr Blair of treachery.

Yesterday the Prime Minister and Mr Brown refused to be drawn on Peston's claims. Mr Brown will appear with Mr Milburn at a Labour election poster campaign this week. But it will take more than carefully choreographed events to put a lid on the simmering tensions at the top of government. The chances are that they will resurface within months, if not weeks.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Tony Blair:

"I am fighting the next election. I am going to stand, and I have said this, for a full term. That is what I intend to do."

"You have got a choice: either go over the next explosive book before the next explosive book ... [or] concentrate on the issues."

Gordon Brown:

"I think we above all - and I heard the Prime Minister speak this morning - are determined to do what is right for the country."

"I will also be playing my part, as I can and as I have been asked to do, in the national campaign as well."

A RIVALRY WRIT LARGE

Gordon Brown by Paul Routledge (1998)

Brown feels betrayed by Blair for breaking promise at Granita restaurant to hand over power. Feels that he could have won the 1994 leadership contest.

Servants Of The People by Andrew Rawnsley (2000)

Regular rows between the two men; when Blair made a health spending statement, Brown screamed at him: "You've stolen my f****** Budget."

Rivals by James Naughtie (2001)

There was no "Granita deal"; Blair wants a third term as Prime Minister; is considering alternative successors such as Charles Clarke; has contemplated sacking Brown.

Off Whitehall by Derek Scott, a former No 10 adviser during Tony Blair's first term (2003)

The Chancellor refused to discuss details of his budgets with the Prime Minister.

An Honourable Deception? by Clare Short (2003)

Blair suggested that he would step down if Brown backed plans to join the euro; Short was twice used as a go-between by the Prime Minister.

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