Leading article: The Prime Minister must clarify his intentions


How quickly things change in New Labour politics. Only a few months ago relations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - although not amicable - seemed to be more professional than they had been for a long time. We were informed that the Prime Minister was finally reconciled to the inevitability of Mr Brown's accession and was making plans for a smooth handover of power. For his part, the Chancellor had agreed to support his leader to the hilt in the intervening period. Co-operation and choreography were the buzzwords around Westminster. But no longer.

The regular meetings between the two appear to have been suspended. There are reports that Mr Brown has been "dis-invited" from Wednesday's launch of Labour's local elections campaign, an echo of his exclusion from last year's general election campaign. And there is a new openness to the sniping between the two camps.

As usual, both claim the moral high ground. The Prime Ministers' camp accuses allies of Mr Brown of stoking the fires of the scandals surrounding Tessa Jowell and the secret loans to the Labour Party. And there are suspicions that the Chancellor deliberately brought the council tax discount for pensioners to an end in his recent Budget to destabilise Labour's local elections campaign (and by extension Mr Blair).

The Brown camp is just as paranoid. Dark suspicions were aroused by Mr Blair's admission in an interview in Australia that pre-announcing his departure was a "mistake". And the Chancellor has interpreted public statements last week by two former Blairite ministers as a coded attack on his record at the Treasury. In short, such is the level of distrust that every move by each side, no matter how trivial, is analysed for hidden meaning and seized upon as evidence of betrayal.

The infighting is clearly debilitating for the Government, with ministers being pulled in two directions at once. It would be tempting to argue that a debilitated government is no bad thing when those in power are pushing through illiberal measures such as ID cards. But we should not forget that serious questions regarding the nation's future are also at stake. Pensions are a good example. There is disagreement at the heart of government over whether to implement the recommendations of the Turner Inquiry. Mr Blair is in favour, but Mr Brown believes it would be unaffordable. A White Paper is due next month. How can we have any confidence that a final decision will be determined by the merits of the Turner proposals, rather than the twisted relationship between these two men?

This situation is also diverting ministers' minds from serious matters such as the threat from global warming. These questions cannot be postponed until such time as Mr Blair and Mr Brown decide to work sensibly together. They matter far more to the public than either the "legacy" of Mr Blair or the "inheritance" of Mr Brown.

This frenzied struggle is being played out against a backdrop of discontent in the Labour Party and the country. Rebel Labour MPs are threatening to mount a leadership challenge to Mr Blair if the party does poorly in the local elections. And an opinion poll this weekend indicated that most voters believe Mr Blair should step down within a year.

There are suggestions, fuelled by the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks last week, that Mr Blair is planning to announce a firm date at which he will leave office. Such a move would, at least, have the merit of ending the paralysing uncertainty hanging over his premiership and raise the possibility of a halt in these futile hostilities. Mr Blair must recognise that the longer he allows this situation to drag on without clarifying his plans, the worse it will become both for him and the Government.

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