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Monday, April 03, 2006 

The Blair and Brown rift: reaching crisis point, or bubbling under?

Nearly all of the newspapers at the weekend were reporting that the relationship not just between the prime minister and the chancellor but also between their relative supporters had reached a new low. The Guardian reported one person's belief that the Blairites believed Brown had removed the £200 discount on council tax for pensioners purely to damage the prime minister in the run-up to next month's elections, by some bizarre logic that if Labour performed poorly he'd be more likely to throw in the towel. Another report suggested that Alan Milburn, an arch-Blairite, was getting ready to challenge Brown in a leadership election once Blair finally does go, while the News of the World carried a poll showing that 42% of voters want Blair to go now, with only 2% wanting him to stay until after the next election. To ward off this apparent speculation, Blair and Brown now will apparently launch the local election campaign together on Wednesday, after a report in yesterday's Observer alleged that Brown had been banished from the event.

Is all this speculation for real, and does it really matter? Michael White, ex-Guardian political editor says no, while Derek Draper, who has worked at the centre of "New" Labour says yes. White's case, and that of some of the commenters seems to be that it's all spin designed to sell newspapers and take minds off the loans and NHS problems. Perhaps so. Draper's case is more compelling though, and seems closer to the truth. According to him, Blair and Brown genuinely loathe each other, and so do their supporters. This has been coming slowly but surely to the boil since the original Granita deal, apparently reneged by Blair.

Rather than get involved in all the rivalry and bitterness, it would be wiser to take a step back. While Blair has been the one at the helm, the one who has been unrelenting in the so-called reform agenda, who has turned to the Tories for their support for his education bill and who has led the country into the disastrous war in Iraq, Brown has been the one who has kept the economy afloat. Yet Brown has never played his hand, or if he has, he hasn't played it strong enough. We don't know whether he objected to the Iraq war, whether he was against tuition fees or foundation hospitals, business academies or the unrelenting crushing of civil liberties. What we do know is that he done very little to stop any of it from happening, perhaps with the exception of foundation hospitals which he is said to have opposed and managed to water-down. We can blame Blair all we like for what we object to, but he couldn't have done it without either the support of Brown or without Brown letting him get away with it. Brown's apparent agenda was to be for Lords and constitutional reform, and more spending on education, but Blair's reluctance to let go of power means that he has in effect stolen it. Blair was the one who had the final say over the loans, and who nominated the donors for peerages, apparently without Brown's knowledge. Yet Brown still says nothing in public. Instead his supporters brief against Blair's, doing nothing but showing the public that Labour is facing a schism.

The debate should about where Labour is going, what its policies should be, and how it's going to sell them to an ever more dubious public and an increasingly critical media. Instead Labour is re-running the Granita deal over and over. Take a look at the ministers in the cabinet who are either full-blown Blairites or Blair supporters. There's Tessa Jowell, Charles Clarke, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt, Alistair Darling, Hazel Blears, John Hutton, Geoff Hoon, all to name but a few. Some of them are so loyal that they'd seemingly throw themselves under a bus to save Tony. All of them also hold the honour of being either unpopular or making many loyal Labour supporters' teeth go on edge whenever they open their mouths. Gordon Brown apparently would either sack a good number or they would resign before he could do so, should he ever finally ascend to the job of prime minister.

The point has been reached when many no longer feel they can support Labour in any shape or form, such has the anger become against not just the policies, but the manner in which they have been promoted and argued for since last year's general election. As it stands, Blair has to go. It's time that the craven sycophants surrounding him realised that. It seems doubtful whether Brown would draw that big a line under the Blair years and fight for the heart of Labour as he feels it beats. Frankly, so disillusioned and upset have many natural Labour supporters come, even a diluted and already burdened Brown should be given a chance. Blair has to give him it, and end the speculation and in-fighting once and for all.

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