- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

LONDON — Reports of a major escalation in a long-running feud between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top Cabinet minister have thrown British politics into turmoil ahead of a general election expected this spring.

A new book by well-connected financial writer Robert Peston claims that Mr. Blair, battered over the war in Iraq, promised finance minister Gordon Brown at a dinner 14 months ago that he would step down before the next election, only to renege on that pledge eight months later.

Mr. Brown, who has never denied he covets the prime minister’s job, was infuriated, vowing never again to believe anything Mr. Blair says, Mr. Peston wrote in his book, “Brown’s Britain.” He said relations between the two have since deteriorated into “mutual animosity and contempt.”

The two men and their aides spent much of Sunday and yesterday trying to bridge the widening rift, which has now grown to what one political analyst described as “a chasm” between them.

Within the ruling Labor Party, several members of Parliament who were elected by small majorities fear that the infighting at the top could mean an end to their political careers even if, as expected, Mr. Blair wins a third term in an election that is widely expected to be called for May 5.

But the battle is not so much over the election — a poll for Britain’s News of the World newspaper gives the Labor Party a seven-point lead over the Conservative opposition — as it is over the party’s future leadership.

The same poll by ICM Research cannot have made pleasant reading for Mr. Blair. It recorded that of the 1,030 adults surveyed, Mr. Brown was preferred as the next prime minister by 27 percent, against 26 percent for Mr. Blair. Conservative Party leader Michael Howard was supported by only 14 percent.

Reports of a feud between Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown over the top job have circulated for years, but the Peston book appears to have taken it to new heights of animosity bordering on hatred.

According to the book, the prime minister told Mr. Brown at a dinner on Nov. 6, 2003, that he had lost the trust of the British electorate by leading the nation into an unpopular war in Iraq and that “I am not going to turn this around for a very long time.”

“Therefore,” Mr. Blair is quoted as saying, “I am going to stand down before the next election.” Then he told Mr. Brown, “I must leave, but I need your help to get through the next year.”

Last March, according to Mr. Peston, the prime minister told Mr. Brown that he would announce the following month that he intended to retire in the fall — to which the chancellor insisted: “Don’t do that, it would be crazy. You’ll make yourself a lame duck. You’ll send the Labor Party into turmoil.”

If accurately reported, the remark would be one of the biggest mistakes of Mr. Brown’s political career, because by July, according to the Peston book, Mr. Blair had changed his mind.

“To go now would look like I’ve been defeated over Iraq,” he told Mr. Brown over another dinner. “I need more time. I can’t be bounced.” At which, the book says, Mr. Brown exploded, telling the prime minister that “there is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe.”

With an eye to the upcoming election, both were trying yesterday to paper over the rift. Mr. Blair’s spokesman said the prime minister “is determined that he will get on with the business of government because he believes that’s actually what people want.”

Mr. Blair, who now insists that he intends to serve out a full third term but will step down before a fourth, said of the Peston assertions, “I’ve dealt with this six months ago. I said then that you don’t do deals over jobs like this — you don’t.”

Mr. Brown, for his part, told British Broadcasting Corp. simply that “it’s very important that we all do what we can in a unified way to ensure the election of a Labor government.”

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