BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 August 2006, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Labour leadership chatter intensifies
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

You know the feeling - a couple of days back at work after the summer holiday and it is as if you have never been away.

Tony Blair
Blair faces continued speculation over future
And sure enough, within hours of Tony Blair returning from his holiday insisting he will not be distracted from the job in hand by leadership chatter, speculation over exactly that issue was being fanned by senior party figures.

Even chancellor Gordon Brown, in an article for the Financial Times, appeared to enter the fray by slapping down suggestions from Blairite former minister Stephen Byers that Labour should abolish inheritance tax.

"No political party will be trusted if it promises stability in one breath and unfunded tax cuts in the next.

"To make unfunded promises, to play fast and loose with stability - indeed to play politics with stability - is a return to the bad old days, something I will never do and the British people will not accept," he said.

He may not have named Mr Byers but there was no doubt who this barb was aimed at. And, in any case, Mr Brown's closest aide, Ed Balls, later made it crystal clear who the target was when asked about Mr Byers' suggestion.

Looking to future

The suspicion from some in the Brown camp is that Mr Byers had been put up to it by the prime minister as part of a campaign to challenge the chancellor to show more of his policy hand before he takes over as leader, as most expect, within the next few months.

Stephen Byers
Byers is seen as Blair loyalist
Mr Balls even echoed the recent, not-so-thinly-veiled warning from Mr Brown that the last thing the party wants is to descend into divisions over the leadership in the way the Tories did in the 1990s and which saw Margaret Thatcher forced from office.

These latest interventions came hard on the heels of other remarks over the past few days from other ministers clearly looking to the future.

Europe minister Geoff Hoon said voters were starting to see Conservative leader David Cameron as a serious alternative to Tony Blair.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said the prime minister's plans to step down as leader were creating "uncertainty" within the Labour party.

And Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, said Mr Blair was still the right person to be leading the party.

Blairite agenda

So, even as Mr Blair is planning another of his flurries of activity designed to show he is still in control and full of ideas, the competing camps are only encouraging speculation over his future.

Gordon Brown
Brown slapped down Byers' tax suggestion
At the centre of the latest remarks from both sides have been demands for a debate over the direction of the Labour party.

What that really means is that there are real fears in the Blair camp that they still do not know precisely where Mr Brown would lead the party, and that it may be away from a Blairite agenda.

There are even those who believe they should be constantly challenging Mr Brown over his policy intentions in an attempt to "expose" him, chip away at his support in the party and even allow for a credible Blairite challenge for the leadership when the time comes - the names John Reid and Alan Johnson keep popping up, for example.

But the comments from Mr Balls and the chancellor himself suggest they are on the front foot.

For his part, the prime minister is planning a couple of weeks concentrating on policy on social exclusion, health, education and globalisation which will aim to set the government's future direction.

But the question must be for just how long the prime minister will be in position to drive forward that agenda and whether he is, as the Brown camp appear to be suggesting, in danger of pitching the party into wrangling over his continuing leadership.

And, just as was the case before the prime minister's holiday, that has left everyone looking towards the party's annual conference in Manchester in September as a place where these issues can finally be resolved.

Brown hits back in Labour tax row
29 Aug 06 |  Politics
Key time for Labour, says Byers
28 Aug 06 |  Politics
Blair should carry on - Falconer
27 Aug 06 |  Politics
Blair 'causing party uncertainty'
26 Aug 06 |  Politics

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific