Blair hands over to Chancellor - but it's just a taster for top job

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair finally agreed to handover to Gordon Brown yesterday - but only for a few minutes. The Prime Minister heaped praised on the Chancellor as he introduced him at the launch of Labour's campaign for next month's local elections.

The painted smiles of the two men might have looked good on television but could not disguise the simmering tensions between them over the real handover, for which Mr Brown is anxious to secure a date.

Despite a truce over pensions policy, their relations are so fraught that Mr Blair's aides scrapped the traditional format for yesterday's launch, banning reporters from asking any questions so they could not be quizzed about their not- so-special relationship.

Labour officials described the rather surreal event at London's St Katherine's Dock as "a modern launch". They denied that a question-and-answer session had been scrapped.

They were being economical with the truth: the "briefing pack" circulated to Labour figures taking part said there would be a 10-minute "Q & A" at 11am. Mr Brown's aides believed their man would be taking questions and were happy for him to do so. However, the Chancellor had been told the previous night that Downing Street had decided otherwise.

Mr Brown was left kicking his heels and chatting to party workers as the Prime Minister placated broadcasters by granting them brief one-to-one interviews. He made clear he has no big handover on his mind, recalling that he won "a majority larger than most post-war majorities" less than a year ago.

Asked about his relationship with Mr Brown, Mr Blair said: "I'm just really not going into it any more. I'm fighting on the issues and that's the important thing because whatever I do that part of the soap opera is going to continue." He added: "I understand why you want to talk about something else but I don't."

Dismissing criticism for evading questions at the launch, he said: "We do take questions from you all the time. But you've got to recognise we occasionally want to run our own show to get across our message."

At the launch itself, the toughest question Mr Blair and Mr Brown faced was whether it was to be "tea or coffee?" as they mingled with carefully vetted Labour councillors and activists. It looked a bit like a Labour fund-raising dinner without the millionaires.

Right on cue, the activists applauded when Messrs Blair and Brown arrived, accompanied by John Prescott; the Labour chairman, Ian McCartney, and the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, who is heading the party's campaign in London.

Ms Jowell did not want to face media questions either but raised eyebrows when she looked ahead to the 2012 Olympics and mentioned "Team GB". To the Blairites, Team GB means quite something else.

For the journalists, that was as good as it got. Some detected a TB-GB split, noting that Mr Blair's shirt sleeves were rolled up to show he meant business while Mr Brown, as ever, was a jacket-on man.

The hacks thought they were going to a press conference, but the signs were ominous when, on their arrival, they were escorted by a Labour spin doctor to the "holding room". The Orwellian approach continued when they were told they would not be able to ask questions but not why. As a special treat, however, they were allowed to don headphones to listen in on Mr Blair and Mr Brown as they chatted to the scrupulously loyal party activists.

"It's good to talk," Mr McCartney said. But he made it clear the Labour high command had no intention of talking to what he called the "scribblers, squawkers and snappers" in the room.

By the way, Mr Blair said something about council tax bills being lower in Labour-run authorities. His figures were later disputed by the Tories.