Tony Blair yesterday acknowledged Gordon Brown's hopes of succeeding him as Prime Minister, but insisted he was still the senior partner.
Mr Blair said it was "not an ignoble ambition" to aspire to lead the nation but said his partnership with the Chancellor would endure.
In comments that will reignite speculation about the prospects for a Brown succession, Mr Blair said: "Partnership implies that I am the Prime Minister and he is the Chancellor."
Mr Blair's relations with Mr Brown have been under intense scrutiny in recent months as the Prime Minister's position has been weakened by rebellions over Iraq, foundation hospitals and unrest in Labour ranks over university top-up fees.
Mr Blair used an interview during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nigeria to praise Mr Brown, but made clear that he was still in charge. He told Sky News: "The British economy under Gordon has been probably the best-run economy of any in the western world.
"So the job he has done for Britain and for the British economy is fantastic and the partnership we have had over these last 10 years in changing the Labour Party and in changing the country is a partnership that will endure. And it doesn't matter how many times people try to put rifts between us, it will not work."
Asked if that implied he would always be the senior partner, Mr Blair replied: "Partnership implies that I am the Prime Minister and he is the Chancellor." Asked if it was wrong to aspire to the premiership, Mr Blair said: "As I have often said to people, that is not an ignoble ambition. People are perfectly entitled to do that."
Mr Brown refused to comment on whether he would replace Mr Blair if the Prime Minister was forced to stand down over top-up fees. He told the BBC: "I am not thinking about that at all. I am thinking about the job I'm doing."
Mr Blair, who has suffered two health scares in recent weeks, looked drawn as he was questioned yesterday.
Meanwhile, the entertainer Sir Cliff Richard revealed he had lent Mr Blair his Caribbean villa because the Prime Minister looked "gaunt and tired" during the Iraq war. The singer, 63, said he telephoned Mr Blair's wife, Cherie, with the offer because her husband appeared exhausted during the conflict. Sir Cliff told Sky News: "I saw him during the war and I thought, 'This man has made this decision and he's living it in front of us'. He seemed to change. He became gaunt, tired, ancient-looking suddenly. So I just phoned Cherie and I said, 'Look, it just looks horrible and I know it must be terribly difficult'," he said.
"All I know is that a human friend of mine looked as though he needed a rest. I may not offer that again, but I was happy that I did because he did benefit from it physically."
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