New rift opens between Brown and Blair

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A ferocious bout of infighting erupted between supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown yesterday as cabinet allies of the Prime Minister rallied to his defence before one of his most difficult weeks in office.

A ferocious bout of infighting erupted between supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown yesterday as cabinet allies of the Prime Minister rallied to his defence before one of his most difficult weeks in office.

As Downing Street braced itself for the Butler report on intelligence on Iraq and two by-elections, in Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill, ministers confirmed they had asked Tony Blair not to quit last month amid doubts about his premiership.

Yesterday allies of Mr Blair accused friends of Mr Brown of leaking reports about the Prime Minister's "wobble" in office, while aides of the Chancellor accused Downing Street of "spin" and leaking the reports in an attempt to create "a smokescreen" over a difficult week for the Prime Minister.

Today, the Chancellor will take centre stage politically when he delivers his comprehensive spending review, which sets out his plans for the next three years. But his supporters fear that speculation over Mr Blair's leadership will distract attention from his performance.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary and a loyal Blairite, suggested that Mr Brown may never be Prime Minister and would face a strong challenge to succeed Mr Blair if he decided to go for the job. On the BBC's Breakfast with Frost, Mr Clarke said: "Gordon may or may not be a candidate. Others may or may not be candidates. There will be a normal leadership election at whatever time and whatever circumstances in the normal way. It depends entirely on the circumstances and that is another thing that annoys me about these speculations," he said.

Mr Clarke joined other cabinet ministers, including John Reid, the Health Secretary, in denying that Mr Blair had been on the verge of quitting. But both said that they had asked the Prime Minister to stay when their leader hit a low point before the local elections last month.

"I believe Tony will stay as leader for a very, very long time - I certainly hope he does, as I have said," said Mr Clarke. "And the circumstances of his departure as leader, whatever they may be at whatever point in the future, will determine the nature of the leadership contest to succeed him."

Mr Reid told GMTV's Sunday that he did "not believe that Tony Blair ever planned to resign". He said: "There was no plan, there was no intention for Tony Blair to resign." But he admitted he had gone to him to offer his support and tell him he had "the overwhelming support of the Cabinet, the Parliamentary Labour Party and so on".

Yesterday Downing Street made it clear that both Mr Reid and Mr Clarke "speak for the Government", in what will be interpreted as a snub to Mr Brown. One Number 10 source said: "What Charles is saying is he hopes the Prime Minister is going to be the Prime Minister for some time. It is foolish to speculate about the circumstances under which a succession will take place. What Charles is saying is anything can happen. This is a lively start to a lively week."

On Saturday the BBC reported that four cabinet ministers, including Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, tried to dissuade Mr Blair from resigning.

Downing Street figures privately accused Mr Brown of leaking the story, while allies of the Chancellor suggested that Downing Street may have manufactured the report to overshadow today's spending review.

A close friend and ally of Mr Brown accused senior figures within the Government of leaking the story in order to make mischief. In an interview with The Independent, Ed Balls, the Chancellor's former chief economic adviser, said the story was "astonishing". "It is beyond belief that anyone could think that such a story can do any good to the Government or the Labour Party. There are some who are constantly trying to undermine the partnership between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for reasons I can't fathom."

Asked whether the Chancellor has put pressure on Mr Blair to stand down so that he can take over before the election, Mr Balls said:"Gordon Brown fully supports Tony Blair. He has always believed that what is important is not the office you hold, but how you perform in the office you hold. He is very proud to be Chancellor. He would never do anything for reasons of personal ambition, but acts in the interests of the Government and the country."

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT NO 10?

Theory 1: Tony Blair had a "wobble" last month overviolence in Iraq, the loss of support among Labour MPs and the prospect of terrible results in the local and Euro elections. "Wobble" ended after election results and handover of Iraq sovereignty.

Theory 2: Cabinet ministers, reading reports of loss of support for Mr Blair among Labour MPs and ministers, begged him to stay. But discovered concerns about his future were unfounded.

Theory 3: The story that Mr Blair had to be talked out of resigning by his wife and cabinet ministers was part of a plot by Gordon Brown to destabilise him, ahead of by-elections and the Butler report. Mr Brown's allies leaked the story to the BBC.

Theory 4: The story was part of a No 10spin operation to put the line out that Mr Blair was not going to quit ahead of the Butler report and by-elections. They could blame Mr Brown for the leak.

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