Tue, Jan 11, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Blair denies agreeing to step down


UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has denied a new claim that he agreed to quit before the end of his second term to make way for Treasury chief Gordon Brown, but then decided to stay on.

"You don't do deals over jobs like this," Blair said on Sunday.

The feud between Brown and Blair is the most persistent rumor in British politics. But the latest twist came in a journalist's book alleging that Blair told his Chancellor of the Exchequer in late 2003 that he would quit before the next election, which is expected this year.

According to the book, Blair later reversed his position and decided to stay on, prompting Brown to tell him: "There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe."

Blair on Sunday played down the significance of the claims made in the book, Brown's Britain, by Robert Peston, a Sunday Telegraph journalist, who has known Brown and members of his inner circle for more than 10 years.

"This is reheated from six or seven months ago," Blair told BBC TV's Breakfast With Frost program. "I'm simply not going back over things that I've answered many, many times before."

Asked whether he had assured Brown that he would step down, then changed his mind, Blair replied: "I've dealt with this six months ago. I said then you don't do deals over jobs like this. You don't."

Brown later sidestepped questions about a rift and urged the government to unite to secure a third term.

"... I am not going to be diverted or distracted, nor is Tony Blair, by newspaper stories or books or rumors or gossip," he told reporters.

There has long been speculation that after Labour Party leader John Smith died in 1994, Brown agreed to withdraw from the leadership race in exchange for a promise that Blair, if elected, would step down midway through a second term.

Labour won a landslide victory in the 1997 election, and again in 2001. But Blair's popularity dipped sharply in 2003 because of the Iraq war, which Blair supported as a means of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons were never found.

Brown has been Treasury chief since 1997 and his successful handling of the economy is widely regarded as Labour's biggest election asset. He is sometimes criticized for lacking Blair's charisma but is popular with Labour traditionalists.

In an excerpt from his book published in the Sunday Telegraph, Peston wrote that on Nov. 6, 2003, at a dinner hosted by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Blair told Brown he would quit.

"I think in the end I will be vindicated [over Iraq]. But I'm not going to turn this around for a very long time. Therefore I am going to stand down before the election," Blair said, according to Peston.

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