Blair backs Brown, but his private view is less supportive

In public, Tony Blair rallied behind his successor yesterday, saying Gordon Brown could not be blamed for Britain's economic woes that are beyond his control.

"I said when I left I was going to be 100 per cent supportive of Gordon and the Government and that's what I continue to be, totally and completely, because I know it's a difficult job," Mr Blair said on a rare foray back into British politics.

But, in private, close confidants of Mr Blair say his view is slightly different. He is exasperated by the problems engulfing Labour. Asked what he really felt about Mr Brown's performance, one close ally replied: "I told you so."

His former political friends go even further. Mr Brown has been a disaster as Prime Minister they believe and has to go.

But among Labour's gloomy and fractious parliamentary party, some believe Mr Blair is partly to blame for not supporting a credible alternative as leader to Mr Brown.

"Tony didn't tell us so; he failed to stand up to Gordon and protect and promote a Blairite successor," one MP said yesterday. As cabinet ministers agonise over whether to try to force Mr Brown out of office, backbenchers are critical of Mr Blair for not promoting David Miliband after the 2005 general election.

It is a mystery to natural Blair allies why Mr Miliband was made Environment Secretary rather than sent to the Foreign Office, where Margaret Beckett was a surprise choice. Mr Miliband's lack of experience in a top job was one reason why he rejected pressure to stand against Mr Brown for the Labour leadership.

There is a growing feeling that the party would now have a clearer direction if there had been a leadership contest rather than the coronation of Mr Brown. Some ministers believe Mr Miliband could have even defeated him – not a common view last year.

Friends of Mr Blair dismissed as "rubbish" the suggestion there is a Blairite plot to oust Mr Brown, saying the criticism is coming from all sides of the party. They stressed it would not be good for Mr Blair's legacy for Labour to lose the next election.

Yesterday, Mr Blair returned to the Commons for the first time since standing down as Prime Minister to give evidence to a committee of MPs about his role as a Middle East peace envoy. As he signed autographs for the public in Portcullis House, some Labour MPs looked on ruefully. "Come back soon, all is forgiven," one quipped.

Interviewed on GMTV, Mr Blair remained scrupulously loyal. "It's tough for all leaders at the moment right round the Western world because they've got things that are happening that, to be fair, is not really their individual fault," he said. "He's actually probably the most successful finance minister in the world for a decade."

When he said that being Prime Minister was a difficult job, the presenter Fiona Phillips told him: "But you didn't make it look quite as difficult as it's looking now. That's the thing."

Later, Blair aides telephoned journalists to insist he had not made a coded criticism of Mr Brown when he said politicians looked "inhuman" if they were too cautious and refused to answer questions. "He was talking about himself," one aide said.

But some Labour MPs who want Mr Brown to quit before the election found Mr Blair's defence of his successor unconvincing.

What they say about Gordon...

In public:

"I said when I left I was going to be 100 per cent supportive of Gordon and the Government and that's what I continue to be, totally and completely." Tony Blair

"We should finish with 'dog whistle' language... We should suspend the black arts of divisive inner-party briefing and bullying which penalise and inhibit debate and discussion." Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary

"For all the blizzard of initiatives that emanate from Whitehall, Labour has yet to develop a coherent post-Blair agenda." Alan Milburn, former Health Secretary

In private:

"I told you so." senior Blairite

"He's got to go – that is the phrase I hear at Westminster more than any other." Former cabinet minister

"The Cabinet has a duty to tell him to stand down. They are the leadership of the party and that is their responsibility." Senior Labour backbencher

"We are in deep shit. Very few people think Gordon can now turn it round." Junior minister

"He's crap at communication and the role of a leader is to communicate." Cabinet minister, speaking anonymously

"He's just not as good as I thought he would be." Another cabinet member

"He's made terrible misjudgements. There's a sense that the Government is being buffeted by storms rather than steering a clear course." Third Cabinet minister

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