Sunday, September 10, 2006

INTERVIEW: Gordon Brown squares up to Labour rebels

By Ian Kirby, Political Editor

Gordon Brown has faced down his critics after a week of Labour war and pledged to brush them aside on his way to power.

In a breezy and confident demonstration of his new authority, the Chancellor laughed off this weekend's bitter personal criticism from hardline Blairites who blamed him for the leadership crisis that tore the Government apart.

Directly rebuffing ex-Home Secretary Charles Clarke's claim that he shouldn't assume he will be anointed Britain's next prime minister, Mr Brown openly threw down the gauntlet to anyone who thought they could rival him as future leader.

In a clear "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!" challenge, tough-guy Brown squared up to the Blairite rebels and said:

"I am HAPPY for there to be a leadership contest. I think there SHOULD be. If people decide they want to stand when there is a leadership contest, whenever that happens, they should feel free to do so. I would WELCOME the open contest."

But in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with the News of the World, he went on to:

* Pour CONTEMPT on Mr Clarke's claims he'd been "stupid" to be photographed laughing and gloating after leaving a meeting with the PM - in fact, he revealed, he'd been innocently chuckling with one of his staff about his newborn son Fraser's latest exploits. He said: "It comes to something when people even criticise me for smiling."

* DISMISS claims that he urged on Labour's anti-Blair rebels as 'nonsense'.

He said: "I made it very clear to people all week, privately, that Tony should make his own decision and we should support that decision ... any suggestion that I or those acting for me were directly involved in this is absolute nonsense."

* REJECT claims that he is a control freak saying 'I'm a team player."

* HINT that former Home Secretary Clarke's attack was motivated by a historic row over budget cuts.

* ICILY reject as "laughable" that attack and Mr Clarke's other highly-personal accusations that he was a psychologically-flawed “deluded control freak” .

* REFUSE to condemn the eight Labour rebels - branded by Mr Blair as "disloyal" - who had quit government posts in protest at the PM clinging to power and refused to rule out their returning to Government.

Mr Brown was speaking at the end of a tumultuous week in which Labour rebels had finally forced the PM to set a departure date - after which pro-Blairites led by former Home Secretary Charles Clarke reacted furiously by launching a diatribe of abuse at the Chancellor.

He was branded psychologically flawed, a "deluded control freak", a loner, and even "stupid".

But Mr Brown was having none of it - and went out of his way to make clear he is thinking and preparing to tackle far weightier matters than simply how to secure for himself the job of Prime Minister.

He also invited the News of the World into his family home and spoke for the first time about he is coping with becoming a Dad again and how his family always comes first.

While aides scurried in and out of his cluttered family kitchen, the Chancellor first warned how the civil war raging in the Labour Party would only succeed in driving away potential voters.

He made it clear he had initially believed the Labour unrest had been calmed by Mr Blair's announcement this week of his departure plans, and his shock at how the issue had been savagely reignited this weekend by Mr Clarke and Blair supporters.

He stressed: “We have all got to prove at every moment that we are doing the right thing for the country and we must never forget that the electorate are the final judge.”

He also made it clear that briefings from Downing Street suggesting that he and his supporters tried to mount a coup last week were totally wide of the mark.

Brown blasted: “That is completely untrue. I was not accused (by the Prime Minister) of that.”

Mr Brown also repeatedly insisted he did NOT orchestrate last week’s resignation of junior minister Tom Watson and seven ministerial aides. Mr Brown said: “There is no truth in the suggestion there was an attempted coup.”

The day before Mr Watson quit he visited the Chancellor’s home with a baby gift. But when the News of the World asked Mr Brown if they discussed the rebel’s resignation, he simply replied: “Tom Watson’s decision surprised me and he has made it clear he has never talked to me about any of this.

"The situation was sad, regrettable and caused us a great deal of grief."

Alluding to Charles Clarke’s criticisms and left wing rebels who want to take him on in a leadership contest, he said: “If people decide they want to stand when there is a leadership contest, whenever that happens, they should feel free to do so.

"I welcome the chance to put my views but people should be given the chance to put their views.

"I welcome a debate about new ideas and future policy and I welcome the fact that there are people with great talent within the Labour party.

"If people are going to stand in any future leadership contest then they are welcome to do so. They are not only free to do so but they should do so if that's what they want. I'm very open to all this."

But he warned that the anti-Brown faction, and attacks like Mr Clarke's, risk creating the very Labour Party split that everyone claim's they want to avoid.

“We have got to also recognise that there is no ideological divide within the mainstream Labour Party and we should not try to suggest that there is.”

However he couldn't resist also appearing to pile pressure on the Prime Minister to be clear with the public when he is going to stand down.

The Chancellor said: “This is not a time for deals, this is not a time for private statements.

“There is an issue, obviously, when a Prime Minister says that he is not going to contest the next election.

“It is for Tony to make a decision and to announce that in his own time, I do believe that is the right thing to do.”

Over the past three days, Brown has been subject to an unprecedented attack from his former Cabinet colleague, ex-Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Clarke started by slamming Brown for being snapped with a broad grin as he left Downing Street.

Brown last night said the claims were ridiculous, while his aiodes labelled them “pathetic”.

He explained: “He was referring to me smiling and said I was sneaking out of Downing Street by the back door - I was actually simply coming out of my office in Downing Street!

“A photographer with a long lens got me joking to one of the people who works with me about my young family.

“There was nothing else, I didn't know the photograph was being taken. And the idea I sought a photograph like this is laughable. It comes to something when people criticise me for smiling.”

In a series of interviews, Clarke accused him of grinning for the cameras and slammed his leadership qualities.

Clarke claimed he was a “deluded control freak” with “psychological” issues that nmade him unsuitable to be Prime Minister, mocking: “Can a leopard change his spots.”

Brown warned that such attacks would quickly make the Labour Party unsuitable for government.

Deliberately contrasting himself from anti-Brownites touring the television studios, he said: “I have never for a minute, in all these discussions, taken my eye off the central question which is my duty to the country.

“That is to create economic stability and growth.

“Every day MY first thoughts are how I conduct my job as Chancellor in the interests of the country.

“I will not shirk from any of these responsibilites or fail to discharge them. These are the issues I will be judged upon.”

Mr Brown repeatedly insisted he had not orchestrated the letter sent to the Prime Minister that led to the resignation of junior minister Tom Watson and seven ministerial aides.

However, Mr Brown did meet Mr Watson the day before he sent the letter .

Watson visited the Chancellor’s Fife home to drop off a gift for his new baby, Fraser. But Mr Brown claimed: “I did not discuss the letter and it would not have been appropriate to do so.”

He added: “There is no truth in the suggestion that there was an attempted coup.”

"Tom Watson's decision surprised me and he has made it very clear that he has never talked to me about any of this. The situation was sad, regrettable and caused us a great deal of grief. "

But he defended the rebels disquiet by pointing out: “People HAVE had questions about the future.

“Where people feel strongly about it obviously that has led to events happening - but now we have all got to come together.”

And when asked if he would have the rebels back in government his response was extremely significant.

Mr Brown said: “I think what has happened is sad but I hope that people can come together in the future. "

Pressed if Watson and the others could reappear in a Brown government, he made its clear it is entirely possible ""We don't know where we are going to be in the future - we don't know even if I am going to be in Downing Street so we can't draw any conclusions at the moment about any of these things.

Mr Brown also insisted that reports of a series of blazing rows between him and the Prime Minister on Wednesday as they haggled over his departure are untrue.

He explained: “It is simply not true to say that there has been an argument or bickering.

“When we met that day we were obviously discussing the question of the leadership.

“What I said to him about that decision was what I had said before - that it was a decision for him. It was pretty clear that there was no basis for argument.”

“Just like every member of the public is saying, something has got to be sorted out in the next few years. Like anybody here we have all got the same question. But that does not mean to say I am wanting to have a particular answer. The decision is for him.”

But he also used his answer to emphasise yet again what he sees as the difference betweden him and the PM now.

While the PM's men are busy ensuring their man is going out in a blaze of personal glory, the man who is certain he will be Britain's next Prime Minister is getting down to the hard business of government.

He explained: “We also spent more important time discussing Palestine and Israel, Afghanistan, discussing the forthcoming spending review, discussing the pre budget report when I will be commenting on the state of the economy.

Mr Brown was at pains to stress that while potential leadership rivals plot and spin against him, he will be getting on with governing the country.

He will continue to play with a straight bat, supporting the increasingly beleaguered Tony Blair, adding: “The Labour Party has been united under Tony Blair's leadership and the idea there is some personal ideological divide between me and Tony is ridiculous.

“We have known each other for 20 years, we grew up politically together and we have made many difficult decisions together."

He claimed straight-faced: “This idea that there is personal tension between us this week that led to a vicious argument is completely wrong.”

With the autumn party conferences looming, Mr Brown hinted that his own leadership campaign will soon be underway.

After his conferences speeches he has the Pre Budget Report in November, and the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review early next year.

While his rivals tour the television studios, Mr Brown will be moving around the country.

He explained: “I am going to be going around the country after the pre-budget report and the spending review and we will be having hearings and events in every part of the country over the next few months.

“We will be listening to what people have to say as we prepare the next stage of our policies and my priority will be to listen to peoples questions and views and get a real sense of the issues that are affecting them: how we can ensure our children are better educated, how we can keep people more fit and have a more healthy society, how we can improve the National Health Service, how we can help savings for people."

Pointedly dismissed Blairite claims he's a political control freak, , “I will be joined by ministers - though I will be taking the lead.”

Asked if was indeed a 'control freak', he said: "Not at all. I would describe myself as a team player. I've been doing just that for over 20 years.

"My favourite sport is rugby and rugby is about teamwork and teamwork is the essence of what we do in Government.

However, he added honestly: "As Chancellor you've got to say no to people. You've got to be strong, you've got to control public expenditure.

"Often I have had to say no. There is no chancellor that has emerged in the last 20 or 30 years who hasn't been criticised for being tough with people."

It is known that when Mr Clarke was Home Secretary he clashed with the Chancellor about budget issues.

Mr Brown commented: "You have to take the rough and tumble of politics. Sometimes you think it's not fair but you just get on with the job.

"You are bound to have people saying that's a decision that I didn't want. The Chancellor is in the difficult position of having to tell his colleagues 'no'.

"And I did have to say 'no'. Sometimes people don't fully realise that the Chancellor has to adjudicate claims for public expenditure. So there are bound to people who feel they are hard done by."

And he summed up the current in-fighting in the Labour Party with a bleak warning about the consequences of a bitter fight over Tony Blair’s future.

He explained: “The question is, is there some fundamental unbridgeable divide inside the Labour Party on either ideology or anything else? The answer is no.

"I am supportive of the Government's foreign policy. There are big issues ahead but all in the context of policy's set by Tony which I support.

"That includes Iraq and the difficult decisions that have been made there and in Afghanistan."

"NHS reform will continue - nobody should be in any doubt about my determination to continue reform right across the public services. There will be no reversal on reforms. We are moving forward not backward."

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