Blair hits the phones to quell talk of splits

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Tony Blair has telephoned the editors of several national newspapers from Chequers to try to calm the furore over the battle for the succession. He denied speculation that his decision to step down after a third term had exacerbated the divisions with Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair has telephoned the editors of several national newspapers from Chequers to try to calm the furore over the battle for the succession. He denied speculation that his decision to step down after a third term had exacerbated the divisions with Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister's decision to handle his own "spin-doctoring" while recuperating from his heart operation underlined the desperation in Downing Street to avoid last week's announcement backfiring on Mr Blair. In particular, the Prime Minister was anxious to scotch the speculation that he had kept Mr Brown "out of the loop" after reports from Washington, where the Chancellor was at a G7 meeting, that he had acted while he was out of the country, "like an African coup".

The Labour leadership was also alarmed that with some union leaders declaring yesterday for Mr Brown, the contest for the leadership would overshadow the campaign for the general election.

Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun, and Martin Newland, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, were among those on the Prime Minister's call list. He is also believed to have spoken to editors of Sunday newspapers to try to avoid speculation about his departure getting out of his control.

The Prime Minister's message was reinforced publicly by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Chancellor in Washington. In a carefully orchestrated operation, they appealed to rival camps, including supporters of Mr Brown and ministers with ambitions to replace Mr Blair, to hold off their campaigns for the leadership until Mr Blair stands down.

Mr Brown told journalists he wanted to see a "unity of purpose" in the Labour party ahead of the general election. "The unity of purpose that this Government has is important both to the Labour party and the country. Nothing should divert or distract us from the unity of purpose that is necessary for Britain to be a successful economy in the in the years ahead."

Mr Prescott bluntly warned rival ministers hoping to succeed Mr Blair not to damage Labour's chances of winning a historic third term. "The full wrath of the party, I think, will be visited on those who decide to threaten that and feed any speculation," he said on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost yesterday.

"Let's face it, there will be a lot of talk of 'a senior source said' or 'friends of so and so said', but it means absolutely nothing provided no candidate or prospective candidate confirms it. Every one of us has got to focus on the election. If the party feel in any way that the personal ambitions of individuals threaten the possibility of our party winning the next election - because we do have to win it, don't take it for granted - I think they will feel angry about that.

"So let's keep our eye on the main ball and that is to convince the electorate to elect another Labour government under the leadership of Tony Blair."

Mr Brown, who has formed a close alliance with Mr Prescott, knew Mr Blair intended to announce he would stand for a full third term. His allies are sure Mr Blair will not be able to resist stepping down for four years.

Tam Dalyell, the veteran Labour MP, said if Mr Blair tried to hold on to office, a "stalking horse" candidate could run against him, because of the anger of the Iraq war. The Independent knows of at least two Labour MPs on the left who could be persuaded after the election to run against Mr Blair.

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