One of Tony Blair's closest aides was embroiled in a fresh row over the Labour leadership yesterday after he was quoted in a magazine as declaring that Gordon Brown would never become prime minister.
The extraordinary comments by Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, will reignite speculation about the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown after a month of frenzied rumours about Mr Blair's future.
Mr Powell's comments, reported in yesterday's Spectator magazine, were said to have been made during a chance meeting with its editor, the Tory MP Boris Johnson. The two men chatted as they waited on their bicycles at traffic lights by a pedestrian crossing in the Mall by Horse Guards Road in Westminster while cycling home on Monday last week.
Mr Powell was quoted as likening Mr Brown's desire to be prime minister to a Shakespearean tragedy. "Gordon Brown is like the guy who thinks he's going to be king but never gets it," the magazine quoted him as saying. It said Mr Powell also suggested that Mr Blair would lead the Government for a full third term. He was quoted as saying: "I've advised him that he should be frank with the people and tell them that if elected he can't commit to serving a full fourth term."
Downing Street denied Mr Powell made the remarks as he bantered with the colourful Henley MP. But Mr Johnson insisted his account was "100 per cent accurate". The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "There was some light-hearted banter on Pall Mall but the last person Jonathan would confide his inner-most thoughts to is Boris." He added: "He did not say it. He was misquoted and let's just leave it."
Mr Johnson said yesterday: "That's not true, the quotes are accurate." He said he had written down the conversation immediately after his chance meeting in the street. Mr Johnson conceded that he had suggested to Mr Powell that a Scot might not be able to lead Britain because of the "West Lothian question" but insisted that Mr Powell had agreed.
He said: "I was just waiting as I was cycling down the Mall and he pulled up alongside me. He said something about me being about to jump the lights and I asked him about Gordon Brown and all that jazz and that is how it went. He just said it.
"There was a bit of a cycle race afterwards and I thought: 'gosh is that a story?' I thought it was very interesting".
The chance traffic light meeting between two cyclists came amid increasing speculation about whether Mr Blair would decide to step down.
A wave of speculation about Mr Blair's future engulfed the Government last month after John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, was said to have discussed the succession during a roadside chat with Mr Brown while buying kippers at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.
Liam Fox, the co-chairman of the Conservative Party, said: "What a pity that this most bizarre relationship is distracting the Government's attention away from the issues that really matter to most voters such as crime, education and taxation."
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, refused to comment about the report at a Labour election press conference yesterday. Asked about the chances of Mr Blair serving a full term if re-elected, he said: "I only give odds on horse races."