Tony Blair tried to ease tensions between himself and Gordon Brown yesterday by praising the Chancellor's record as "superb" but refused to guarantee that he would remain in his Treasury post if Labour wins the next general election.
The Prime Minister's monthly press conference was overshadowed by another flurry of speculation that his relationship with Mr Brown had sunk to a new low. Allies of the Chancellor, already seething about being sidelined from the pivotal role he has played at the past two elections, were furious that Mr Blair timed yesterday's Downing Street event to coincide with a long-planned speech by the Chancellor outlining his plans to tackle global poverty and debt.
Mr Blair's aides insisted the diary clash was "more cock up than conspiracy" but the Prime Minister was thrown on to the defensive by the perception that he and Mr Brown were competing for media coverage.
The Prime Minister's public praise for the Chancellor failed to halt the war of words between their rival camps. Charlie Whelan, Mr Brown's former press secretary, said the timing of the No 10 press conference was "astonishing" and accused Mr Blair of trying to "to get in on the act" after making a "major error of judgement" by not cutting short his holiday in Egypt following the tsunami disaster. Blair allies countered by saying the Chancellor had not taken up an offer for him to play a key election role. They said Mr Brown wanted to campaign by himself and denied he had been excluded from discussions about Labour's manifesto.
Yesterday Mr Blair insisted that Mr Brown would be "at the centre" of the campaign but although it is expected to take place in just four months, was unable to outline his precise role.
He said of the Chancellor: "He has done a great job. He is doing a great job. He will continue to do a great job." But he refused to be drawn on whether he would keep his Treasury power base if Labour won a third term. Some Blair advisers want the Prime Minister to move him to the Foreign Office but Mr Brown would probably go to the back benches if he were ousted from the Treasury.
Mr Blair spoke of his "strong partnership" with Mr Brown, saying they had "a complete unity of purpose" on issues such as poverty in Africa and child care. "We will carry on working together in the way we did in the past two elections," he said.
However, he acknowledged the dangers of disunity. "It is absolutely essential that people believe that they are getting a united policy front from the Government."
Labour MPs expressed concern about the bickering between the Blair and Brown camps. Jim Dobbin, MP for Heywood and Middleton, said: "The country needs to see unity at the top. That is important and what they are going to have to get to grips with."
Clive Soley, former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, said: "Both men have made a joint teamwork effort over the years which has been incredibly successful, and if they lose it, both will lose out."
Alan Duncan, the shadow International Development Secretary, said the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had displayed the "undignified spectacle of squabbling like children in the playground".
Simon Hughes, president of the Liberal Democrats, said: "The last thing the people of south-east Asia and Africa need is a new year pantomime where the two leading men are trying to outplay each other for the starring role."
What PM had to say...
On Gordon Brown:
'He has done a superb job as Chancellor... for many, many years and I have no doubt he will continue to do a superb job'
On the clash of speeches:
'I'm not interested in what goes in and out of the newspapers. What I'm interested in is getting things done'
- More about:
- Labour Party