Brown calls Blair in to No 10 for secret talks as crisis mounts

PM's announcement of national plan for Britain came day after hour-long one-to-one meeting
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Gordon Brown has called Tony Blair into Downing Street as he desperately tries to rescue his leadership from a series of crises. The meeting on Thursday lasted more than an hour, coming amid the continuing outcry over MPs' expenses and warnings from ministers that Labour faces its worst performance in decades at next month's local and European elections.

There was also continued speculation that Mr Brown could face a challenge to his leadership in the wake of the double poll on 4 June.

The timing of the meeting, with Mr Brown's future in doubt, triggered talk in Westminster that the premier was asking Mr Blair for help. Sources said that they did not discuss election timing or strategy, but the conversation did cover domestic politics. The day after the talks, it emerged that Mr Brown will launch a "national plan for Britain" as part of his fightback.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Nick Clegg predicts that Mr Brown's troubles are so bad that Lib Dem MPs will outnumber Labour within a decade because the governing party has lost the "contest of ideas".

After another day of turmoil in Westminster, Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, yesterday issued a thinly veiled warning to the Prime Minister that if he is preparing to sack her in the forthcoming reshuffle, she has the support of cabinet ministers. Friends of Ms Blears said she was feeling "emboldened", despite criticism of her expenses claims, after talking to her constituents on the doorstep in Salford, and that she had been "delighted" to receive phone calls of support from members of the Cabinet. The warning followed Mr Brown's condemnation of Ms Blears's failure to pay capital gains tax on her second home as "totally unacceptable". Ms Blears has since sent a cheque to HM Revenue & Customs for £13,000.

The Prime Minister initiated the talks with Mr Blair in a phone call that resulted in the invitation to Downing Street last Thursday. It is believed the two met about three times last year, but this is the first time they have held face-to-face talks this year. They speak on the telephone about once a month.

They discussed Mr Blair's role as Middle East envoy, but the discussion inevitably strayed into domestic politics, a source said. A Downing Street spokesman added: "We never discuss meetings. We have repeatedly said they have a good relationship."

Some ministers have suggested Mr Brown should go to the country in October, after a summer of setting out constitutional reforms to clean up Parliament, although No 10 sources tried to pour cold water on the reports.

Yesterday, the IoS established that Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, claimed more than £80,000 in second-home expenses over four years when he was an MP, even though his constituency was within 50 miles of Westminster, as we reveal today.

It also emerged that John Wick, the former SAS officer who handed over MPs' expense claims to The Daily Telegraph, was involved in Tory fundraising, although a Tory source insisted it was "on the fringes". It is believed Mr Wick was involved in the Carlton Club political committee, which has raised more than £400,000 for the Tories since Mr Cameron became leader.

As the expenses scandal continued to rage, Sir Peter Viggers, the Tory MP for Gosport, said he was "ashamed and humiliated" to have claimed for a duck house and island on expenses. He described this as a "ridiculous and grave error of judgement", adding that the ducks had never liked the feature and it was no longer being used.

Ian McCartney, the former Labour chairman, announced he was standing down at the next election as MP for Makerfield – because of "health problems" – within days of his disclosure that he paid back nearly £15,000 of his own expenses claims last year. He had purchased, at the taxpayers' expense, an 18-piece dinner set, champagne flutes and a £700 dining table. And Andrew MacKay, Mr Cameron's former parliamentary aide, announced he was standing down after becoming a "distraction".

The latest announcements take to eight the number of MPs stepping down at the next general election. Quitting then not only saves their parties from bruising by-elections but also ensures each up to £64,000 in "resettlement grant" cash, paid for by the taxpayer.