In-fighting could ruin our election hopes, says Byers

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A close ally of Tony Blair warns today that Labour's general election prospects could be undermined by disunity as candidates to succeed the Prime Minister jockey for position.

A close ally of Tony Blair warns today that Labour's general election prospects could be undermined by disunity as candidates to succeed the Prime Minister jockey for position.

Stephen Byers, the former cabinet minister, voices publicly the fears of many senior Labour figures that Mr Blair has unwittingly sparked a "war of succession" by announcing in October that he intends to stand down as Prime Minister shortly before the election after next. Some Blair loyalists believe his statement was a mistake.

Writing in The Independent, Mr Byers makes a plea for unity between supporters of Mr Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who is angry at being sidelined from the election campaign after Alan Milburn was appointed as Labour's election and policy co-ordinator.

Mr Byers reflects fears in the Blair camp that Mr Brown, who has decided to campaign around the country, will distance himself from Labour's election effort. Aides say Mr Blair wants the Chancellor to be a prominent "public face" of the campaign so the party can trumpet its economic record since 1997.

The former minister endorses Mr Brown's call for Labour to build a "progressive consensus" but warns: "The Labour Party will rightly expect those in positions of authority to support the agreed position. Any individual who fails to do so will pay a heavy political price."

Mr Byers, who is advising Mr Blair on Labour's manifesto, expresses concern that potential candidates to succeed the Prime Minister might not support the radical programme that Blairites want to implement if the party wins a third term.

Admitting that Mr Blair has effectively fired "the starting gun for the Labour succession", Mr Byers warns bluntly that this could create "a potentially dangerous cocktail" at a time when the party needed to be at its most united.

He admits the "real concerns" in the Labour Party about public service reforms may encourage potential candidates to call for the slowing down of the modernisation programme "to court popularity".

Mr Byers proposes a compromise under which modernisers put "boundaries" around the role that the market and private firms could play in public services.

For example, Labour would promise not to bring in charges for services currently free of charge, such as hospital stays or GP appointments, but would keep open the option of charging the better-off for new schemes such as universal child care.

Blairites would also talk up the "public service ethos" recognised by the Chancellor and accept that, even though they want services to be more consumer-friendly, they could not be run like supermarkets or take-away restaurants.

In return, Mr Byers wants critics of reform to accept the need for more choice and diversity in public services and to stop accusing modernisers of wanting to "privatise" them.

However, the difficulty of securing such a truce was highlighted this week when tensions emerged over a plan promoted by Mr Milburn and Mr Byers to give "vouchers" to the elderly to buy services such as meals-on-wheels, transport and long-term care from different providers instead of relying solely on their local authorities.

The proposal faces opposition from ministers, including John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who are likely to regard the proposal as a back-door way of "privatising" a key state-run service.

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