The Gordon and Tony show: the lowest of the low just got lower

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The Independent Online

New lows hit a new high last week. A search through the electronic libraries reveals that Blair-Brown relations were described as reaching a "new low" six times in the past quarter. They only touched a new low four times in the previous quarter and three times in the second quarter of 2004. Mind you, the term has an ancient pedigree. It was first applied to the Blair-Brown spat, by this newspaper, in January 1998. But it is a statistical fact that low can always get lower. And the state of the Blair-Brown partnership is undoubtedly worse than ever.

This may seem a mountainous conclusion to draw from the molehill of a clash of diary dates, with the Chancellor delivering a speech in Edinburgh at the same time as the Prime Minister answered questions about his vest in Downing Street. The split-screen broadcast of the two events recalled the 1966 Andy Warhol film The Chelsea Girls, which consisted of two reels projected side by side onto the same screen. The projectionist quickly learnt that he could not run the two soundtracks simultaneously, despite the improvisation, and he devised a schedule for switching the sounds between the two scenes of drug-crazed mayhem.

New Labour understood that lesson too, and became famous for "the grid", by which it ensured that its important people did not waste media exposure or confuse the message by doing notable things at the same time as each other. Having lived by the grid, Tony Blair is now being beaten over the head with it. We know it matters because he made it matter.

Despite the logistical precision with which the Prime Minister's officials lay out the reasons why they simply had no choice but to hold his monthly news conference at that time on Thursday, they cannot conceal the fact that Blair did not mind stealing Brown's limelight. Nor can they help talking about the Chancellor as if he were a distant, hostile and alien power. Despite the boss's insistence that "we are united", they do not even pretend that Brown is on the same team any more.

What is so surprising about all of this is the sheer recklessness of Blair's aggression. He appointed Alan Milburn to the position Brown held last time of overall authority for the election campaign. Milburn used this authority to propose policies for the manifesto that Blair knew Brown and the Labour Party would not like. If Milburn's re-elevation were not enough, Blair used David Blunkett's resignation to promote more of Brown's leadership rivals: Charles Clarke and, farther into the future, Ruth Kelly and David Miliband. And now this incident, trivial in itself but adding to the evidence of Blair's determination to diminish Brown.

I disagree therefore with the opinion of my good colleague Mr Watkins (opposite) that Blair's refusal to break off his holiday to emote for Britain shows that he has lost the will to carry on. Or that he is ill. What it showed, I think, is that Alastair Campbell is no longer his press secretary. It was often observed that BlairCampbell was almost a single, joint personality. That personality might have sensed more quickly how important the tsunami disaster was and insisted on returning to London to take charge. What we are now seeing, however, is what the Blair half of that personality is really like - and some of us might be relieved that it is a little less hyper-attention-seeking than the dual version.

Yet, if the Blair half of the personality is not so intense about managing the media, it is still utterly ruthless about holding on to power. That is why the minor rumour-panic that fluttered last week quickly faded. I was told that a well-placed civil servant had said that Blair planned to announce his resignation in the next three weeks. But a call to William Hill, the bookmaker, revealed no surge of mysterious bets - instead I was advised that I might make more money on Blair to grow a moustache, at 66-1.

The instability in Government is caused, therefore, not by Blair's imminent departure, but by his determination to frustrate Brown's ambition, which threatens to blow apart the pretence of unity that keeps the show on the road.

Not that I think Blair's aim is to prevent Brown from succeeding him. I suspect that he would rather Brown didn't, but he knows that the Chancellor will be best placed to take over for some time to come. What has become obvious is that Blair doesn't care what the effect is on his former friend - he has a legacy to think of. It is reckless - admirable even - for him to press ahead with a defiantly market reform manifesto.

I am told that Stephen Byers's inflammatory article in The Independent last week, which in effect warned the Chancellor that the party would expect him to unite behind a "progressive consensus", was not authorised by Downing Street. Nor would it have been, because the Prime Minister did not like the suggestion of a compromise with Brown implied by "consensus" - in other words, Blair thought it was not inflammatory enough.

This is exciting stuff, admittedly in a positive sense only for the small band of admirers of Blair's ideology. But it seems risky to knowingly court such huge publicity for Labour's divisions. And it seems criminally negligent to do so just five months from a general election.

Again, this is cited by some as evidence that Blair has "lost it". On the contrary, it displays cold calculation. He knows that he can push Brown to the brink because the Chancellor does not want to leave the Government.

Brown cannot afford to resign now, or even after the election if Blair tries to move him to the Foreign Office. It would be too difficult to mount a leadership challenge from the back benches. The mechanism for a Labour leadership election is simply too cumbersome for the kind of swift decapitation in which the Conservative party specialises.

The only way to start the process is to put down a motion at Labour's annual conference and have it carried. And over what policies would Brown challenge Blair - all those market reforms that Labour members do not like but which have just been endorsed by the electorate in the manifesto? Hence the detailed war-gaming on which we report today, with Blair thinking of sweetening the offer of the Foreign Office by adding International Development to it.

Blair knows that the period between now and the election, and the Cabinet reshuffle which will follow after that, will be his time of greatest power before he finally departs, at some point during the next parliamentary term. Brown's only defence is that Blair looks bad if he moves too aggressively against him. So Brown has an incentive to play up how unreasonably he has been treated, and Blair's people have an incentive to portray him as too difficult to be a team player on Blair's terms.

The weather forecast: new lows expected over the next six months.