Mandelson joins Brown as Labour sounds poll alert

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Tony Blair put the Government on an official "war footing" last night by drafting in Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson to lead Labour's general election campaign.

Tony Blair put the Government on an official "war footing" last night by drafting in Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson to lead Labour's general election campaign.

The Prime Minister prompted speculation that he may opt for a snap election next year when he announced that the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had been given the key roles.

They formed the "dream team" that oversaw the party's 1997 victory and their reunion comes despite stories suggesting a feud.

The move, which ensures that the pair are locked into a formal alliance, was seen at Westminster as an attempt to force them to work constructively together.

In a statement last night Mr Blair said that the Cabinet Office minister, Ian McCartney, would replace John Prescott to rally Labour voters and activists in the country.

Mr Brown will chair the general election strategy committee, while Mr Mandelson will chair the general election planning group.

Douglas Alexander, the 32-year-old MP for Paisley South, will act as campaigning co-ordinator and deputy to Mr Mandelson, helping with election planning.

Mr Alexander, who masterminded Labour's campaign for the Scottish parliamentary elections this year, will have an important role while Mr Mandelson copes with his duties in Northern Ireland. The appointment of Mr Alexander - a close ally of Mr Brown - as Mr Mandelson's deputy may also be an attempt to reassure backbench MPs that Mr Mandelsonwill be kept under control.

However, the decision to recall Labour's most skilful spin- doctor to the post that made him famous confirms he has Mr Blair's loyalty.

The move also follows recent fears that the rivalry between the Chancellor and Mr Mandelson could spill into further embarrassment when Geoffrey Robinson, the former paymaster general, publishes his memoirs this winter. Mr Robinson, whose £373,000 confidential loan to Mr Mandelson triggered his resignation just before last Christmas, is seen as a close ally of Mr Brown.

Relations between the two ministers have been strained since Mr Mandelson backed Mr Blair in the battle to succeed John Smith in 1994.

Despite their at times bitter feud, Mr Mandelson and Mr Brown worked closely on Labour's 1997 campaign and are credited with much of the damage that it inflicted on the Tories.

Yet the tensions have continued to simmer - and boiled over repeatedly in the wake of press briefings by Mr Brown's spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan.

One of the low points occurred when Mr Whelan said that Mr Brown believed that Mr Mandelson had "chickened out" of full privatisation of the Post Office during his tenure as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

When the Hartlepool MP quit the Cabinet over the home- loan affair, Mr Whelan's scalp was claimed, despite his protests that he had nothing to do with the story.

Most recently, Mr Brown and Mr Prescott, another opponent of Mr Mandelson, teamed up in July to block the Prime Minister's plans for the MP's early return from the political wilderness with a top Millbank job.

They also warned the Prime Minister not to appoint Mr Mandelson to any domestic departments. "This is a blood feud. They respect each other professionally, but Gordon will never forgive Mandelson for what he did," one insider said last night.

Mr Mandelson's recall to the crucial post will raise eyebrows among some Labour MPs but most will welcome his return because of the party's disastrous showing in the European elections.

A Labour spokesman said the announcement was part of the party's strategy of early preparations for the next election. "We will fight on our record and were are starting to get our message across to the people to show that we have delivered our promise," he said.