Friends disunited: the Tony and Gordon show, still crazy after all these years

The story of the Chancellor's ambition to take the top job continues to run, with new revelations this weekend. Is the end now in sight, asksAndy McSmith
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Neither Gordon Brown nor David Blunkett would claim to be a great socialiser. With one of these two single-minded, work-driven and rather puritanical men playing host, and the other as guest of honour, Friday night's party at the Browns' Queensferry home was probably not the wildest rave-up that part of Scotland has ever seen.

Indeed, you might think it would be a frosty occasion, given the headlines generated by a Blunkett comment last week. He told the New Statesman: "It's important that those of us who are privileged to be at the very cutting edge of government don't presume that we should be immediately taking somebody else's job."

In the Westminster village, that reference to somebody wanting somebody's else job was automatically seen as a shot at Mr Brown, the story of whose ambition to be Prime Minister has become the longest-running soap in modern politics.

In the latest twists this weekend, Mr Brown's closest ally has revealed that he almost quit in 1999; and Peter Mandelson, a long-time foe of the Chancellor, is to make a public offer of reconciliation.

Ed Balls, Mr Brown's outgoing chief economic adviser revealed that the Chancellor had taken "very seriously" the offer of a job as head of the IMF. Mr Mandelson, meanwhile, will hail the Chancellor as Mr Blair's "natural successor" in a forthcoming television interview.

These are nervous days for members of Tony Blair's Cabinet. Everyone expects a reshuffle within the next two weeks, so there are quite a few ministers who are wondering if someone else is eyeing up their jobs. There is also anxious speculation about the Prime Minister himself.

At least three Cabinet ministers - Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education; Charles Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, and Peter Hain, the Leader of the House - felt the need last April to sound out the Prime Minister in person about whether he intended to stay or go. They wanted him to stay, but the clumsy handling of the decision to hold a referendum on the EU made them wonder if he had lost his appetite for the job.

For Labour's dissidents, the ideal solution would be for Mr Blair to announce this month that he is pulling out so that a graceful transfer of power can be completed at Labour's autumn conference.

Their hopes were raised, curiously, by an outbreak of peace and understanding between Downing Street's powerful neighbours. The Blair-Brown relationship hit its nadir last November, when Mr Brown publicly complained about his exclusion from Labour's executive committee. Then the two men met over dinner in John Prescott's flat, and suddenly everything started going well. Throw into the mix Mr Prescott's cryptic comments about "plates moving", and some concluded that Mr Blair was about to honour the promise he is said to have made at Granita restaurant 10 years ago, that he would stand aside for Mr Brown. One former minister who wants Mr Blair to resign has been telling fellow MPs: "Gordon doesn't look to me like a man who is expecting to have to wait another two years for the job."

Mr Brown's office insists that this seditious talk has nothing to do with them. One aide said yesterday: "No one who is truly a friend of Gordon's would ever get involved in any of this silly gossip."

But last weekend, the Chancellor was involved in a row about what might be classed as "silly gossip" - the news that a former adviser to Mr Blair, Derek Scott, was writing his memoirs.

Instead of shrugging this off with a "who he?", Mr Brown fired off a press release complaining of an "orchestrated" attempt to denigrate the Treasury. Downing Street took its cue with a statement disowning the Scott memoirs.

The release showedthe Chancellor in no mood to let Blair courtiers blacken his reputation. He had already been irritated by reports, said to come from Downing Street, that he was being defeated by a reinvigorated Mr Blair in battles over the spending review, and by a reported conversation in which Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, allegedly told Boris Johnson, the Tory MP, that Mr Brown would never be Prime Minister.

Those who want Mr Blair to stay where he is have been heartened by the energy with which he has thrown himself into arguments over the five-year plans for the NHS and education. They are convinced he is here to stay.

But it is an open question whether the Home Secretary was telling the Chancellor to put his ambition on hold. Mr Blunkett insists his words were taken out of context and that he was actually referring to his ownjob. Others may have their doubts, but the Chancellor accepted the explanation, which will have lightened the atmosphere at home with Mr and Mrs Brown.

But when the other guests had left, and the Chancellor and the Home Secretary settled for a last chat before turning in for the night, you can be sure they had serious things to say about relations at the very peak of the Government, because Westminster's longest-running soap is not over yet.

MILESTONES IN THE BLAIR-BROWN SAGA

1994

30 May: Brown breaks the news to his closest allies, Nick Brown and Charlie Whelan, that he won't run for the Labour leadership.

31 May: Dinner at Granita restaurant, Islington. Brown agrees not to contest the leadership, giving Blair a clear run. In return, Blair reportedly promises Brown a free hand in running the economy, and to step down after seven years. There are no witnesses.

8 September: Blair, Brown and Mandelson hold a strategy meeting at Chewton Glen Hotel, New Forest, and come away with most of the big questions undecided.

1996

January: Joy Johnson, Labour's media director and a Brown ally, resigns after a feud with Mandelson.

1997

5 January: Tax summit at the Blairs' Islington home. Brown persuaded to drop the idea of a 50p tax rate on incomes over £100,000 pa.

1 May: On the day of Labour's election victory, Blair rings Brown to demand that he sack Whelan. Brown defiantly appoints Whelan a special adviser at the Treasury.

26 September: Sharp fall in the value of sterling after the Financial Times forecasts that the UK is moving closer to joining the euro. Brown blames Mandelson for the leak, while Blair's office suspects Geoffrey Robinson.

17 October: Brown interviewed by The Times, under the headline "Brown rules out single currency for lifetime of this Parliament". Blair has to ring Whelan to ask what is going on.

1998

9 January: Brown's resentment over Blair's alleged bad faith on Granita deal is revealed in a biography by Paul Routledge of the Daily Mirror, written with co-operation of Brown allies.

18 January: The Observer quotes an anonymous source criticising Brown for his "psychological flaws". Alastair Campbell has always denied being the author of the remark.

28 July: Nick Brown removed from the Chief Whip's office, allegedly for his part in the Routledge biography. Other Brownite ministers are sacked.

29 July: Resignation speech by Frank Field, Blairite in charge of welfare reform, who claims his ideas had been backed by Blair but blocked by Brown.

23 December: Mandelson and Robinson forced to resign after the disclosure that the former had borrowed £373,000 from the latter for a house purchase. It is assumed that the Brown camp leaked the information.

1999

4 January: Whelan resigns while denying that he leaked the story of the Mandelson home loan.

2000

16 January: Blair promises on television that the UK will match the EU average health spending by 2006. Brown is reputed to have said: "You've stolen my fucking Budget."

May: Brown attacks the "old-boy network" running the Oxbridge entrance system after a student is rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford. Downing Street says he did not consult Blair.

2001

24 January: Mandelson's second resignation leaves Brown in undisputed charge of planning the general election.

September: Book by James Naughtie forecasts that Blair will fight the next election as Prime Minister, after reports that Brown had demanded a date for handover.

2002

7 January: Personal hostilities are forgotten when the Browns' daughter, Jennifer, dies, aged 10 days.

1 October: Blair declares in his speech to the Labour Party conference that Labour is "at its best when at its boldest", adding: "Why shouldn't our best hospitals be free to develop as Foundation Hospitals?"

25 October: Charles Clarke, the new Secretary of State for Education, refuses to rule out making students pay top-up fees. This proposal sets off a rebellion led by Brown allies Nick Brown and George Mudie.

2003

3 February: Brown's speech warning that "a free market in health care will not produce the most efficient price" hints that he is blocking the Foundation Hospitals proposal.

13 February: Brown's speech: "We should all give Tony Blair our full support."

12 May: Clare Short resigns from the Cabinet over Iraq and calls for an "elegant handover" of power from Blair to, presumably, Brown.

16 May: Blair and Brown issue joint statement declaring that they are united over the euro.

20 May: Mandelson, talking off the record to women journalists, says: "Gordon Brown is a politician right down to his fingertips, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Tony Blair is not. If he was as obsessed with politics, he would not let himself be outmanoeuvred by the Chancellor."

9 June: Brown delivers the Treasury assessment on the euro, saying that economic tests for UK membership have not been met.

28 September: Channel 4 drama The Deal shows Brown in a good light, and denigrates Blair and Mandelson.

29 September: Brown's speech to the annual party conference, declaring that Labour is "best when we are boldest, best when we are united, best when we are Labour", interpreted as a riposte to Blair's remarks the previous year.

6 November: Angry at being denied a seat on Labour's national executive, Brown goes on television to say Blair has denied him the position that would enable him to run the next election campaign. John Prescott hosts a dinner at which Blair and Brown air differences.

19 November: Legislation to create Foundation Hospitals scrapes through the Commons, but only after Brown makes sure that clauses which would have given the hospitals financial freedom are removed.

2004

6 January: London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone readmitted to the Labour Party by the national executive despite Brown's objections.

27 January: The Higher Education Bill scrapes through the Commons 316-311 after Nick Brown switches positions to support it earlier in the day.

20 April: Blair performs one of the biggest U-turns of his career by announcing a referendum on the European constitution, under pressure from Brown, Prescott and Jack Straw.

9 May: Brown and Prescott spotted sharing a car after a memorial service for John Smith, setting off rumours that they were discussing Blair's future.

14 May: Prescott tells The Times: "When plates appear to be moving, everyone positions themselves for it" - interpreted as a hint that Blair might quit imminently.

21 June: Brown forecasts that Blair will lead European referendum campaign.

27 June: Infuriated by news that Blair's former adviser Derek Scott has written a kiss-and-tell memoir, the Treasury claims that it is "deliberately designed and orchestrated to put the Treasury in a bad light and will not be tolerated".

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