Brown joins poll launch to dispel rumours of feud

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown has been invited to take part in the formal launch of Labour's local election campaign this week, in the hope that his presence beside Tony Blair will defuse what one cabinet minister modestly described as " tensions" between the two.

The latest source of tension has been Downing Street's reluctance to say whether the Chancellor would take part in Wednesday's campaign launch. The change of tack by No 10 marked a recognition that the new low in the relationship between Mr Brown and Mr Blair is harming the Labour Party.

Mr Brown had originally thought he would be unable to be there, because it clashed with a UN event in Iraq. When he discovered that he would be in the UK on the right day, he was taken aback to hear that the Prime Minister might prefer to launch a national campaign without him to avoid questions about their relationship.

It was suggested that the Chancellor might stick with his original plan to make a campaigning appearance in Sussex while the Prime Minister launched the national campaign without him.

Ian McCartney, the chairman of the Labour Party, is understood to have had a long telephone conversation yesterday with Mr Blair, who has recently returned from a trip to Australia and the Far East, insisting that the issue of Mr Brown's role in Wednesday's launch should be sorted out quickly.

Relations between the Prime Minister and Chancellor had appeared to be relatively smooth until the middle of last month. They were in regular contact about immediate issues, such as Mr Brown Budget speech, while longer-term differences were set aside for meetings of the so-called transition group.

This informal committee, made up on the one side of Tony Blair and his former advisers, Alastair Campbell and Philip Gould, with Mr Brown and his close advisers on the other, had been discussing the changeover from one prime minister to the next. But in an ominous development for Labour, the committee has not met for several weeks.

Blairite loyalists are furious with the Chancellor's supporters, whom they suspect of plotting to use a poor result in the May elections to lever the Prime Minister out of office. Brown loyalists are, if possible, even angrier with Blairities such as the former cabinet ministers Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, for criticising the Chancellor's Budget.

Cabinet ministers came out yesterday in a combined effort to cool the situation in case it damages Labour support, costing hundreds of councillors their seats.

Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: "I am not denying there are tensions; I am not denying there is the odd argument but that's inevitable in any huge operation such as running government. But a lot of the media obsession in this seems in a different world from the one I operate in around the cabinet table and in government."

Mr Hain ­ tipped as a possible deputy in a Gordon Brown premiership ­ said he believed the handover of power would be "pretty straightforward" . "People want that and there's an acceptance that he is the most outstanding figure not just in the Labour Party but in British politics at the moment," he said.

The Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, said that Labour MPs from either camp who had been briefing journalists were "doing absolutely no good either for the people who voted for us last [spring] or the thousands of Labour Party members who are going to be out on the streets facing tough local elections in May".

A poll in the News of the World yesterday showed that 42 per cent of voters want Tony Blair to leave office now, compared with just 28 per cent six months ago. More than half ­ 57 per cent ­ said he should go within a year.