Row reignites as Clarke vents anger at 'stupid' Brown

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The Labour leadership battle flared again today as the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke criticised Gordon Brown's behaviour as "absolutely stupid ".

Mr Clarke himself was then immediately slapped down by the former minister Glenda Jackson, who accused him of preferring to see Tory leader David Cameron in No 10 rather than the Chancellor.

And Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly said Mr Clarke was entitled to his views but was simply wrong.

Also squaring up were union bosses, with Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, saying Mr Blair should have resigned already.

He issued a stark warning that Labour would lose the next General Election unless changes were made.

And TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said this week's "frenzy" had done nothing but damage to the Government.

Mr Clarke's comments came in an interview with London's Evening Standard. He told the newspaper people in the Labour Party had been angered by a photo of Mr Brown grinning as he left Downing Street after talks with Mr Blair.

"A lot of people are very upset and cross about that. It was absolutely stupid - a stupid, stupid thing to do," he told the paper.

Mr Clarke said he would offer "conditional" support to a Brown premiership, but said his succession was not inevitable.

He also told the Standard Mr Brown should have distanced himself the rebels who wrote to the Prime Minister demanding his resignation.

"What he should have done was come out strongly and distance himself from them. He could have done that with a click of his fingers. This has been complete madness," said Mr Clarke.

Ms Jackson hit back swiftly: "Charles Clarke's comments seem to prove what everybody has long feared - that there are people close to the Prime Minister who would prefer to see David Cameron as Prime Minister rather than Gordon Brown.

"The party will be watching very closely over the next few hours to see the extent to which Tony Blair distances himself from these comments."

On the union front, a survey of 1,000 Amicus activists showed three out of four wanted an immediate change of leadership, blaming Mr Blair's "indifference" to repeated warnings of grass roots alienation.

Mr Simpson said: "The current mess in Westminster is the tip of the iceberg. Our workplace reps are Labour's foot soldiers and they are now in open revolt, such is their frustration over Government policy on the issues that affect them, their colleagues and their communities.

"Unless something changes, Labour will lose the next election."

Mr Barber said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "It is self-evident to everybody that the kind of frenzy that we've seen over the last week has done the Government nothing but damage."

He continued: "The impression of division that has been created seems to me to be particularly unfortunate because, although there are issues on which there are sharp differences, there is no clear ideological divide that has been driving all of this speculation and debate."

Mr Barber said the whole Government had been damaged by recent events and it must now calm the apparent divisions and "articulate a new sense of mission that will inspire and energise their supporters".

Mr Blair is due to address the TUC next week, in what he has said will be his final attendance there as leader.

Ms Kelly said Mr Clarke was entitled to his opinion but added: "On this issue I just think he is wrong, actually."

She continued: "I am sure there are others who share his view but what I would say is that I don't think that represents the centre of gravity in the Labour Party, nor does it represent the majority view in the Cabinet."

Ms Kelly, speaking on the Today programme, insisted Mr Blair had made his intentions clear yesterday, adding: "I think the Prime Minister has deserved and earned the right to decide the manner and timing of his own departure."

Calling for a period of "calm and reflection" in the party, she said: "I think the people who are making these sorts of comments ought to step back for a moment and just consider the potential damage that they are doing to the Labour Party and indeed to the Government."

Challenged that it was right for Mr Clarke to raise questions about Mr Brown, Ms Kelly replied: "As far as I am concerned, Charles has always felt that."

She continued: "Not everybody thinks that Gordon is the natural successor of Tony Blair. It would be a bit of a strange Labour Party if everybody was in exactly the same position."

And she warned: "We have a duty as a Cabinet, as a Government, as ministers and backbenchers, to really refrain now for a period from this sort of intense political infighting."