Brown's 'disloyalty' widens field for leadership battle

By Peter Graff

LONDON - Tony Blair's presumed successor Gordon Brown denied yesterday that he was behind a plot to oust the prime minister, but newspapers said last week's row meant there might now be a fight for the premiership.

Several newspapers reported that members of Blair's cabinet were now looking for "anyone but Gordon" as a successor because they suspected him of disloyalty towards his boss.

Brown, chancellor since the Labour Party took power in 1997, drew strong criticism for remaining silent for days while Labour members of parliament wrote a letter demanding that Blair should quit.

Eight of the signatories later resigned their junior government posts. Blair responded by saying he was planning to go within a year but would have wished to make the announcement on his own terms.

Polls show the crisis has wounded Blair. But Brown may have suffered more than his boss for appearing disloyal and over-eager to take power.

Brown said he would welcome a contest for the leadership. He denied he knew in advance about the letter and would not have encouraged his followers to sign it.

"If anybody asked me about the contents of that letter, I would have said it is ill advised," Brown told BBC television's weekly Sunday morning programme.

"I have always said to Tony, the decision (when to leave office) is for him. I know he will make it in the interest of the party, but, more importantly, in the interest of the country."

As for his relationship with Blair, he said: "Of course there are differences. I think it's been good most of the time, and I think Tony would look back and he would say that as well."

"Stupid, stupid, stupid"

But Brown may have a difficult time convincing the public and the party that he did not plot behind Blair's back.

In interviews which were seen as transforming the party debate this weekend, Charles Clarke, a former cabinet minister, called Brown's behaviour over the past week "stupid, stupid, stupid" and described him as "deluded" and a "control freak".

The Sunday Times reported that Brown had met one of the chief plotters, junior defence minister Tom Watson, on Monday, the day before the plotters delivered the letter demanding Blair resign. Watson quit on Wednesday.

"It's very sad for the country. I don't find it very convincing, by the way, this idea that he gets on well with Tony Blair," former opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague told the BBC.

Blair, who is visiting the Middle East, avoided reporters' questions when asked if he still backed Brown to succeed him. He has said the infighting had to stop or it would cost the party the next election.

But however they talk about each other in public, Blair and Brown have continued a 10-year habit of allowing their aides to disparage each other in anonymous briefings to the press.

"Tony does not want Brown to be the next leader. ... Anyone but Brown would suit him. He thinks the way he has behaved is disgraceful," a source identified as a top Blair aide told the Sunday Times.

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