Blair and Brown factions clash over Chancellor's election role

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The simmering tensions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown erupted again in public yesterday when their allies clashed over the role the Chancellor will play in Labour's general election campaign.

Allies of Mr Blair accused Mr Brown of going "on strike" after he made clear in a newspaper interview his anger at losing the pivotal position he held at the 1997 and 2001 elections.

Blairites claimed that delegates at the Brighton conference were furious that Mr Brown had scuppered attempts to put on a show of unity.

But Brown supporters hit back, saying the Prime Minister had made "the leadership" an issue by giving Alan Milburn a key election role in the recent cabinet reshuffle. They insisted there was "nothing hostile" in Mr Brown's interview despite "three weeks of hostile briefing" against the Chancellor from the Blair camp.

Asked if there was still trust and a strong working relationship between him and Mr Blair, Mr Brown told The Sunday Telegraph curtly: "I've got my job to do and he's got his job to do." He added: "In the last two elections I was obviously the chairman of our election strategy. In this election I'm not."

The Prime Minister tried to cool the Chancellor's anger by telling the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme: "He will do exactly what he's always done. And he does it absolutely excellently and brilliantly and that's how it should be."

Mr Milburn also tried to heal the wounds. In an interview with The Independent, he said: "Gordon is a huge figure in the party, the movement, the country. He has a huge contribution to make. I want to work closely with him, John Prescott and all the others in the Cabinet."

The former secretary of state for health also heaped praise on the Chancellor's economic record. "He has given us something the country, never mind the country, has never had before," he said.

But the words of reassurance cut little ice with the Chancellor's camp. It said Mr Brown would have a different election role because Mr Blair would chair the all-important strategy group while Mr Milburn would be election co-ordinator, a job previously done by the Brown protégé Douglas Alexander.

One supporter said last night: "There are plenty of other ways in which he can campaign against the Conservatives."

Blair allies warned, however, that Mr Brown would damage his own prospects of becoming prime minister unless he played his part in a "team leadership". One leading Blairite said: "The party won't understand or forgive anyone who rocks the boat before the election."

There was irritation in the Prime Minister's circle that Mr Brown did not inform No 10 he was giving his newspaper interview - another sign that the Chancellor is determined to be his own man. Beneath the battle over the election roles lies the crucial debate about the Labour manifesto. The Blair camp wants a raft of new policies on issues such as education, child care, housing and pensions to appeal to the "hard-working families" who feel they have "lost" the Prime Minister to Iraq.

Mr Brown wants the Government's economic record to be at the heart of the campaign. He said: "What I know is that every election puts the economy at its centre. What I also know is that trust on the economy is absolutely vital for any party's ability to win more support."

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