In public, united. In private, the feud deepens

As Brown delivers spending review, relations with PM hit all-time low
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Indy Politics

In public, they seemed close enough. As they took their seats in the Commons, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had a rather staged friendly chat about the contents of the Chancellor's three-year government-wide spending programme. At the end of the statement, Mr Blair placed a congratulatory hand on Mr Brown's arm.

In public, they seemed close enough. As they took their seats in the Commons, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had a rather staged friendly chat about the contents of the Chancellor's three-year government-wide spending programme. At the end of the statement, Mr Blair placed a congratulatory hand on Mr Brown's arm.

The Prime Minister grinned through most of the Chancellor's speech, as he drew his favourite dividing line ahead of the general election - Labour investment vs Tory cuts. He looked on approvingly as Mr Brown announced a boost for nursery education and extra resources for tackling street crime and the fight against global terrorism.

Labour MPs cheered on Mr Brown as he managed to touch all the right buttons even though the spending round had been tight and most of the extra money had already been earmarked for health and education. But they went quiet when Mr Brown more than doubled his plans to axe 40,000 civil service jobs to more than 100,000.

Anyone looking for public signs of divisions between the two most powerful men in British politics was disappointed. True, Mr Brown mentioned the Blair buzzword of "choice" only once, but he repeatedly promised another - "reform". His announcement of 20,000 community support officers to tackle antisocial behaviour was a direct response to Mr Blair's near-obsession with the problem.

In private, it was a different story. MPs in both camps, turning up at Westminster for the Chancellor's big day, were obsessed not with his spending blueprint but "the long-simmering feud" between the two rival camps which boiled over again at the weekend. The consensus is that this pivotal relationship is now as bad as it has been since Mr Blair became Labour leader 10 years ago.

"There are people around Tony who would rather see a Tory as the next prime minister than Gordon," said one senior government figure, appalled by the latest infighting. "Equally, some of Gordon's people want to get Tony out tomorrow."

Despite their united front in the Commons yesterday, the mutual suspicion between their two camps is wide and deep. The Blairites sense that the Brownites believe this critical week provides the last chance that Mr Blair will stand down before the general election. That is probably right, but it does not mean that the Brownites are actively campaigning to achieve that end, as the Blairites claim. Yesterday the prime minister- long-in-waiting set the Government's agenda for the general election and beyond. In contrast, Mr Blair faces the Butler report tomorrow on pre-war intelligence, and the prospect of Labour losing two safe seats in Thursday's by-elections.

Some Brownites expected Mr Blair to announce his departure this month, and have been planning a leadership election campaign with a coronation at the Labour Party conference this autumn. They hint that the Prime Minister promised last November to stand down this summer, as part of a peace deal brokered by John Prescott during the last civil war.

The Blair camp insists no such promise was made. It is convinced the Chancellor's followers are trying to destabilise Mr Blair so that he stands down.

The tensions erupted at the weekend when the BBC reported that the Prime Minister had recently been talked out of resigning by cabinet allies. In a frenzy of weekend briefings to journalists, the Blair and Brown camps blamed each other for the report.

For Blair-Brown watchers, the meltdown at the weekend was part of a familiar cycle. The Chancellor lets his understandable frustration at his long wait for the top job get the better of him. The rumblings from No 11 reach next door, which suspects Mr Brown is destabilising Mr Blair in the hope of persuading him to stand down.

Then the Blairites hit back with dark threats that Mr Brown will be sacked or offered the post of Foreign Secretary. The Brownites retort that their man would turn down the Foreign Office and go to the backbenches.

The Blair camp declares that their man will "go and on and on." The latest example appeared yesterday in The Sun which reported that Mr Blair had decided to stay for another five years in No 10 and might even fight a fourth general election. Such leaks are designed to get under Mr Brown's skin rather than give any real indication of Mr Blair's intentions.

Amid warfare among their aides, the two men realise the damage it is causing and pull back from the brink. The two factions agree a statement saying that the two men are working closer than ever together. Then the flurry of speculation dies down - until the next bout.

What will happen this time? A close Blair ally said "There are two options. Gordon goes back in his box or he will be sacked. "A leading Brown supporter replied: "It's Tony's choice. He can't be forced out, and Gordon knows that." The betting at Westminster again, is that they will manage to swim together again rather than sink the Government.

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