The Week in Politics: TV images speak volumes for an axis now at war

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The Independent Online

David Hill, Downing Street's director of communications, has a maxim: damaging stories in newspapers don't really matter, but television coverage most certainly does.

David Hill, Downing Street's director of communications, has a maxim: damaging stories in newspapers don't really matter, but television coverage most certainly does.

He has been known to hold up a copy of the Daily Mail and tell Labour aides: "Never mind what shit is in here -- just make sure you keep it off there", as he points to a television set.

On Mr Hill's yardstick, his boss has had a pretty bad start to the year. If ever a television picture told the right story, it was the split screen in the live coverage and news bulletins showing the bizarre simultaneous public appearances by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on Thursday.

The split between them is wider than ever. It has nothing to do with the response to the tsunami or helping Africa, on which they competed for airtime. It has everything to do with Mr Brown's frustration that he has not yet become Prime Minister, which has been deepened by Mr Blair's apparent desire to deprive him of the pivotal role that he has played at the last two general elections.

This week's damaging stories about the Blair-Brown split offer a salutory warning. Another of Mr Blair's "laws" is that divided parties lose votes. Divisions prolonged Labour's sentence in the electoral wilderness. They gave the public the impression the Conservatives were unfit for office.

Some deep thinking is now going on in No 10. One insider told me yesterday that it was "a mistake" for the Prime Minister's press conference to take place 10am on Thursday, the very moment that Mr Brown was to make a long-planned speech in Edinburgh. Although the choice of time for the Prime Minister's speech was not intended to provoke the Chancellor, Mr Blair should have realised that it would do so.

Since Alan Milburn was appointed Labour's policy and election co-ordinator last September, Mr Brown has, in effect, taken his ball away. At the election, he has decided to run a solo campaign around the country. On the face of it, he'll be garnering voters for Labour; Mr Blair will be on the road too.

However, the Chancellor's DIY effort will allow him to campaign on his own terms and, if he wants to, with an ever so subtly different message to Mr Blair. As an added bonus, he will meet lots of Labour activists, allowing him to cement his position as the clear front-runner to succeed Mr Blair.

The dangerous impression that the Government's two most powerful figures are going their separate ways will be reinforced next week when Mr Brown embarks on a tour of Africa. Mr Blair's urgent task is to get Mr Brown back on the pitch. The team needs him. The economy will be a central election issue and potentially Labour's strongest card, so it will weaken the party's effort if he does not spearhead it.

Blair aides are "mystified" by the claim that Mr Brown has been excluded. He is one of five politicians on Labour's campaign strategy committee. Before Christmas, the Chancellor was offered a key role highlighting Labour's economic record and attacking the Tories' policies. He has not responded.

Some Blairites accuse Mr Brown of portraying himself as a victim and inventing plots against him. He is said to be upset he was not consulted about Labour manifesto ideas such as issuing vouchers to the elderly so they can buy services. Not so, say the Blairites: a study was approved formally at a meeting attended by the Treasury minister, Dawn Primarolo.

During previous outbreaks of "the TBGBs" since Mr Blair became Labour leader in 1994, I have often been told by one side or the other: "Well, they started it!" It reminds me of that classic Fawlty Towers episode in which Basil tells the German guests who protest they did not start a commotion about the war: "Yes you did; you invaded Poland!"

Mr Brown can justifiably claim that the Prime Minister "started it" by handing his election role to Mr Milburn. It was bound to be taken as a deliberate snub.

"We need to be a bit more inclusive; we have to get Gordon back on board," one prominent Blairite said. Perhaps, some aides say, Mr Blair should tell Mr Brown privately that he has no intention of prising him out of the Treasury if Labour wins a third term. He refused to give such a public promise on Thursday, but there is no reason why he should not reassure Mr Brown privately.

The Prime Minister may not be in the mood to make such a gesture. After announcing his intention to serve a full third term - another cause of anguish for Mr Brown - Mr Blair is feeling liberated, rather like a second-term United States president. That is probably what lay behind his going ahead with his press conference at the very moment the Chancellor was making his keynote speech.

I suspect, too, that this new-found confidence was behind Mr Blair's decision not to return home early from his holiday in Egypt after the tsunami disaster. "Two years ago, he would have rushed back," said one aide.

Despite a pretty torrid 2004, the Prime Minister has somehow found another gear. He will govern on his own terms. If that means putting Mr Brown's nose out of joint, so be it. Although the Chancellor is playing hard to get, the Blairites hope that he will take on a more central election role for the sake of the party - and the size of the Commons majority that he would inherit if he becomes Prime Minister.

They are waiting for Mr Brown's response to Mr Blair's pre-Christmas offer. But it could be a long wait.