A corrosive feud that is dividing the Government and drowning its message

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There can hardly be an administration anywhere in the world, at any period in history, that has not experienced principled disagreements, spats about priorities and clashes of competing ambitions. Up to a point, such tensions can generate productive dialogue and fresh thinking. There comes a time, however, when they begin to have a corrosive effect and undermine the message. For Labour's second term, that point was reached yesterday with the simultaneous appearances of Tony Blair in London and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in Edinburgh.

Why on earth did the Prime Minister's office decide that his monthly news conference should take place at exactly the same time as the Chancellor stood up to deliver his long-scheduled speech in Scotland? Asked about the timing yesterday, Mr Blair mumbled something about having a major engagement on Monday. But this was 10am on Thursday, and even two hours would have made a difference between two presentations intended to reinforce one another and one seemingly calculated to eclipse the other. The split screen employed by at least one broadcaster said it all: split timing, a split message, a split government.

We are, of course, long past the time when it mattered who promised what to whom over dinner (or was it a bottle of wine, or water?) at an Islington restaurant. And who may have betrayed whom since. Mr Blair and Mr Brown have rubbed along more or less successfully as Prime Minister and Chancellor, next-door neighbours and new fathers. Sporadic reports of tensions were usually trumped by the evident fact that the two men were good at different things and complemented each other reasonably well. While the serious and stolid Gordon Brown got on with delivering a competitive economy, the urbane and enthusiastic Tony Blair sold his policies to the voters and gave Britain an eloquent voice abroad.

The one point of continuing disagreement appeared to be Europe. In retrospect, Mr Blair's failure to achieve cabinet unity on this key policy area may be seen as a fatal weakness of his years as Prime Minister. Mr Brown's role as reluctant European may also, in the long term, redound to his disadvantage. But this is hardly the first time that differences over Europe have undermined a British cabinet. In most other respects, Mr Blair has been able to present the differences as less significant than the similarities. Indeed, thanks largely no doubt to the efforts of Alastair Campbell, his Downing Street operation was long renowned for its presentational discipline.

The question raised by yesterday's split-screen performances is whether this can still be so. Mr Blair, to be sure, may have wanted to compensate for misreading the public mood after the tsunami disaster. And he may have sought to do this by moving to reimpose his authority on the Cabinet - even, or especially, if this meant upstaging a Chancellor who had handled the politics of the disaster more adroitly than he had. This does not alter the fact, however, that there could hardly be a worse time for this simmering conflict to spill into the open. At the start of an election year, what the governing party needs above all is clarity and unity of purpose. The new political year has produced the very opposite.

The tragedy of all this is that the messages the two men set out to convey yesterday were essentially the same. They were, first, that the devastation in South-east Asia, albeit without precedent, is an immediate emergency compared with the entrenched poverty of Africa. And second, that the world-wide generosity it has inspired shows how people and institutions can be mobilised to help when they see a purpose to their giving. Thus did both neatly harness the response to the tsunami to the broader goals of Britain's presidency of the G8. As so often, Mr Blair offered the sales pitch; Mr Brown, the nuts and bolts of how it could be done. It was the Government's loss that the two men were speaking over each other and that their single message was drowned out by the bickering off-stage.