Revealed: Blair deal to hand power to Brown

Campbell brokers pact over succession. Voters back Chancellor in 'IoS' poll
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Tony Blair has told Gordon Brown there is "no other contender" for his job and has authorised Alastair Campbell to prepare a smooth hand-over of power, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

Tony Blair has told Gordon Brown there is "no other contender" for his job and has authorised Alastair Campbell to prepare a smooth hand-over of power, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

Detailed negotiations over the succession are being brokered by the former Downing Street director of communications. Topics under discussion include the make-up of the Cabinet in a Labour third term, with Mr Brown insisting on senior roles for allies.

Mr Blair insists, in public, that he will serve a full term if elected, but even his closest aides concede that will not happen. He is warned today that it would be "intolerable for the party". Lord Hattersley, the former deputy Labour leader, said he expected him to hand over after two years. Even if Labour were to win a large majority, the Prime Minister would be unable to claim a personal mandate but would owe his victory to Mr Brown.

The extent to which he has become an electoral liability is laid bare today in a poll published by this newspaper which shows Labour's lead would be 14 points were the Chancellor in charge.

The poll puts Labour on 40 per cent, six points ahead of the Tories, with the Lib Dems on 22 per cent. Labour is a sensational 10 points ahead in an ICM poll for today's Sunday Telegraph, but a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times gives Labour a one-point lead.

Mr Blair has been reassured that his legacy will continue when he leaves office.

"Gordon has come to an understanding that to be leader of the party, and to be a successful prime minister, he has to be New Labour," a member of the Prime Minister's inner circle said yesterday.

"The reality is that Gordon has always been New Labour, though there have been occasions when he felt the need to establish a distinct identity, as politicians have to do."

Power is already shifting to Mr Brown, who is pressing Mr Blair to retain his key allies in the Cabinet. In particular he is pushing for Jack Straw to stay at the Foreign Office.

Rumours about Mr Straw's future were stoked up last week after he sat in the back row at the launch of Labour's election manifesto.

Mr Blair launched a "Keep the NHS Free" campaign yesterday, to save the health service from what he claims is a Tory plan to charge for NHS operations. Stung by posters and mailshots emphasising the risk of MRSA in NHS hospitals, the Prime Minister accused the Tories of running "a nasty and unscrupulous campaign ... descending into increasing desperation".

The Tories accused Mr Blair of misrepresenting their policy to conceal Labour's poor record of NHS management. Michael Howard and his Shadow chancellor, Oliver Letwin, will give more details today about how they propose to distribute a promised £2.7bn in tax cuts. Most of it will be used to give tax breaks on pensions and savings. Contrary to speculation, they are not going to use the money to reduce income tax bills. "New Labour's Britain is a young country ... where the older generation has been airbrushed out," Mr Howard claimed.

Labour retains a six-point lead in today's IoS poll, writes John Rentoul. But Tony Blair's heir apparent strengthens his grip on a third Labour term with the finding that the party's lead would more than double if Gordon Brown were leader.

Under Mr Blair, Labour's lead remains unchanged since our last poll, just before the election campaign began. If Mr Brown were leader, Labour would go up to 45 per cent, the Conservatives down to 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats to 16 per cent; 26 per cent of Lib Dem voters say they would switch to Labour if the Chancellor took over.

With the start of the campaign has come a dramatic rise in the numbers saying they are "absolutely certain to vote", from 49 to 60 per cent. Despite favourable press commentary on Michael Howard's performance, more people rate the Labour campaign "best so far" - 21 per cent, against 16 per cent for Mr Howard and 11 per cent for Charles Kennedy.

The poll reveals the depth of disaffection with conventional political parties - 62 per cent support the idea of a space on ballot papers for voters who wish to abstain.

IoS Poll

Labour: 40% (N.C)

Conservative: 34% (N.C)

Lib Dems: 20% (+4)

Others: 6% (-4)

CommunicateResearch, a member of the British Polling Council, interviewed a random sample of 1,000 adults by telephone, 11-15 April. Results weighted to be representative. Details: www.communicateresearch.com

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