Blair-Brown feud goes on and on and on

CHANCELLOR Gordon Brown once again upstaged the Prime Minister this week when he headed to Africa to highlight the need for urgent action to promote debt relief and poverty reduction.

CHANCELLOR Gordon Brown once again upstaged the Prime Minister this week when he headed to Africa to highlight the need for urgent action to promote debt relief and poverty reduction.

As newspaper photographers and television editors duly obliged Mr Brown's media advisers by sending back pictures of a beaming Chancellor meeting school pupils in Nairobi, Tony Blair was forced to try to end speculation over the alleged feud between the two men.

A new book has reignited talk of the rift claiming Mr Brown told Mr Blair "there is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe" after the Prime Minister reneged on a promise to step down as Prime Minister before the next election.

But Mr Blair, who said this weekend he did not remember any such remark, insisted in the Commons "He didn't say that to me. So the claim in the book happens to be wrong."

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Tory leader Michael Howard repeatedly taunted the Prime Minister in the Commons and pointed out that Mr Brown had refused to issue a denial.

The Conservatives sought to further capitalise on the rift by unveiling a new poster campaign. It showed pictures of the Prime Minister and Chancellor beneath the slogan: "How Can They Fight Crime When They Are Fighting Each Other?"

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It's easy for Downing Street to dismiss all this as froth and saying that policy disagreements do occur in all administrations.

But this row is so personal and so messy, it cannot be blamed on media mischief making. As Mr Brown has refused to deny he made the remark, the Tories are quite right to make hay.

It has certainly given the Conservatives a morale lift because there are signs that the war of words being conducted by supporters of the two most powerful men in the Government is having an impact on the electorate.

The latest prediction of the outcome of the next election from Electoral Calculus - based on current opinion polls - still shows a commanding Labour lead. But it is getting smaller, with the Tories, Liberal Democrats, and Nationalists set to make gains at Labour's expense.

Doubtless the feuding will go until the election. But once that's over. I expect Tony Blair - assuming Labour is re-elected - to act decisively.

As I've written before, Gordon Brown is unlikely to be Chancellor after May. Whether he's moved to the Foreign Office or sacked will depend on the Prime Minister's courage and the Chancellor's own sense of moral injustice that he is being denied the opportunity of one day becoming Labour leader despite the promise of his once closest political friend.

THERE was an unseemly ruckus in Strasbourg on Wednesday when UK Independence Party Euro MPs claimed their rights to protest against the new EU constitution were violated after ushers in the European Parliament grabbed placards they were holding ahead of a vote on the historic document.

They complained to parliament President Josep Borrell that they were victims of "assault causing bodily injury." East of England MEP Tom Wise said medical treatment had to be given to two UKIP staff members who suffered from cuts and bruises during the fracas.

The parliament endorsed the EU treaty 500-137, but it will only come into effect when ratified by all 25 member states.

The 10 UKIP members, who voted against ratification, held up placards, some of which said the charter was "the death of Europe." Tory MEPs also voted against the treaty, with the East region's Geoffrey Van Orden claiming the constitution was "a major step in the creation of a European state."

IN the unlikely even of a tsunami striking Aldeburgh or Brightlingsea, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the person directing relief measures will by the ample figure of Lord Whitty in his role of parliamentary under-secretary the Department for Food and Rural Affairs.

Tory peeress and Suffolk farmer Baroness Byford asked him on Tuesday what emergency arrangements were in place to deal with flooding on the east coast, especially as London was to be protected by another barrier across the Thames.

Lord Whitty said: "Although a tsunami of this (Indian Ocean) size is unlikely to occur in the North Sea, we nevertheless need to be prepared for substantially greater flood emergencies than have arisen hitherto.

"The Environment Agency, the Government and the local authorities concerned are very much engaged in looking at optimum flood defences on the east coast."

He was then tackled by Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Liberal Democrat), who asked if the Government was "content to think that a disaster such as that which occurred in 1953 in East Anglia could be prevented."

Lord Whitty, recalling that 300 died during that catastrophe, said he was satisfied that it would not happen again "due to the flood defences and contingency arrangements that have been put in place."

He added somewhat alarmingly: "That is not to say that substantial flooding and damage could not occur on the east coast."

CONGRATULATIONS to Suffolk West Tory MP Richard Spring, who was right to feel "thrilled" at the findings this week of an inquiry which suggests mobile phone masts should not be sited near schools.

Mr Spring has led the all-party Commons campaign to get the Government to adopt proper planning procedures when it comes to the location of masts, but his parliamentary bid to get a Telecommunications Masts Bill on to the statute book was voted down by Labour MPs after being rejected by ministers.

In a report this week, Professor Sir William recommended that a more readily understandable template of statutory procedures and protocols should be followed by local authorities and phone operators across the UK.

Mr Spring's Bill, which would have given local authorities greater powers over the siting of masts, has been taken up this session by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunell who was successful in the MPs' ballot to table a Private Members' Bill.

Perhaps Labour MPs, with an election coming up, might look more kindly to a measure which protects their voters' children from the possibility of having their brains fried by radio waves.

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