Sun, Oct 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Blair message dashes Brown's hopes

BROKEN PROMISE The original agreement was that the British prime minister would eventually hand over the reins to his chancellor, but that now seems unlikely


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has undermined hopes for his powerful chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, to succeed him and may have opened up the leadership battle to a new generation, newspapers said.

Blair, who returned Friday to Downing Street after a successful operation to correct an irregular heart beat, had dealt Brown's ambitions a blow with his announcement to stay on one last full term, the Financial Times said.

If Blair stays on until 2009, Brown will be 59 years old and "younger figures now seem better placed to take over the leadership," it said. Most pundits believe Blair's Labour party would win elections expected in May next year.

Blair, who was first elected prime minister in 1997, would top Conservative Margaret Thatcher's record for longevity in office.

Blair's announcement for one more full term was seen as aimed at clarifying his plans after he had to undergo the heart operation. Columnists have said he still risks appearing like a "lame duck" by setting a date for his exit.

The Independent newspaper quoted Blair allies meanwhile as saying that the premier had now abandoned plans to hand over to Brown, who was in Washington when the news broke of Blair's plans for a third term and medical procedure.

A Brown aide told The Guardian newspaper: "It's like an African coup. They waited until [Brown] was out of the country" to break the news.

Aides were quoted as telling the daily that Blair might have quit around now if Brown had not "reneged" on a deal to support him in a final year in office so that he could secure his legacy.

In November last year the prime minister discussed his exit strategy with Brown, and in return for a pledge of loyalty and support from Brown, Blair promised to stand down late this year and help Brown achieve his long-held ambition to succeed him, the newspaper said.

Blair's allies said the deal collapsed because the prime minister believed the chancellor was being "obstructive" and "destabilizing."

They cited opposition to university tuition fees by Brown allies as well as Brown's role in forcing Blair to concede a referendum on the European Union constitution, and a string of treasury objections to five-year plans for education, health, crime and transportation.

The Brown camp denies any disloyalty, the daily said.

But an unnamed cabinet minister was quoted as saying that "Gordon made a bad miscalculation. Tony was prepared for a smooth handover if Gordon helped him achieve what he wanted him to do. That support was not forthcoming; he tried to block every move."

When Blair announced his decision Thursday to seek a full third term but not a fourth one, he said Brown would be very capable of succeeding him.

But a Downing Street source told the Independent that it was the party's job and not his to name a successor.

The paper added that Blair's move will be seen as a snub to Brown.

Brown meanwhile was portrayed in British newspapers as putting on a brave face while attending annual meetings of the G-7 leading industrial nations and the International Monteary Fund in Washington.

"The thoughts of all of us must be the prime minister's well being," Brown was quoted as saying.

With his wife Cherie at his side, Blair checked into Hammersmith Hospital in west London for a relatively routine operation to restore his heart rhythm, requiring only local anesthetic and a couple of hours on the operating table.

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