Page last updated at 21:04 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Brown denies unleashing 'forces of hell' on Darling

Alistair Darling: 'It was a weekend you could have done without' (Courtesy of Sky News - Jeff Randall Live)

Gordon Brown has denied ordering any briefing against his chancellor, after Alistair Darling said "the forces of hell" had been unleashed against him.

Mr Darling said No 10 and the Tories had given him "a weekend you could have done without" after he had forecast the worst recession for 60 years, in 2008.

The prime minister told MPs that Mr Darling had been "right" over every major economic decision he had taken.

But Tory leader David Cameron said the two men were "at war with each other".

During heated exchanges at prime minister's questions, Mr Cameron challenged the prime minister to say he had "absolutely nothing" to do with briefings against the chancellor by No 10 advisers.

He said people had a right to know about this as Mr Brown had made character an issue at the upcoming election.

"Why is that the [Mr Brown's] moral compass always points to someone else rather than you," Mr Cameron said.

Mr Brown said he had "never instructed" any briefings against Mr Darling and said he would "rather defend" his chancellor than his Conservative counterpart George Osborne.

Earlier the prime minister said he and Mr Darling and their families had been friends for 20 years and had "huge mutual respect".

'Still here'

In an interview with Sky News interview on Tuesday evening, Mr Darling said he had come under fire for comments he had made about the economy but rejected suggestions he had been bullied by Mr Brown.

In August 2008, Mr Darling caused a political uproar when he said, in an interview, that economic conditions were "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years".

Following this, there were media reports that 10 Downing Street was unhappy with his analysis and his handling of the economy.

There were also suggestions Mr Darling might be reshuffled to make way for Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary and a close ally of Mr Brown.

Gordon Brown and David Cameron clashed over claims of briefings against Mr Darling

Questioned by Sky News about the response to his comments, Mr Darling said that "the forces of hell were unleashed".

And asked whether that had been orchestrated by 10 Downing Street, he said: "The Tories as well. It was a weekend you could have done without.

"I do not know why the briefers did what they did. One day maybe they will explain.

"What I do know is, unfortunately and it's not a great source of pleasure, but what I said did turn out to be true."

In an apparent reference to Mr Brown's former spin doctor Damian McBride, the chancellor added: "Frankly, my best answer for them is, I'm still here, one of them is not."

Mr McBride was forced to resign last year after a planned smear campaign against senior Conservatives emerged in leaked e-mails he had written.

'Robust exchanges'

Asked about Mr Darling's suggestions of a briefing campaign, the prime minister said: "I was never part of anything to do with this. Look, this was the most amazing time... and lots of things were happening in this time.

"But I would never instruct anybody to do anything other than support my chancellor, and I think Alistair will confirm that."

The idea of Gordon instructing us to brief against Alistair Darling is totally wrong
Damian McBride
Mr Brown's former spin doctor

Mr McBride told BBC Two's Newsnight: "I can categorically state that I didn't brief against Alistair Darling or brief against the interview."

He added: "There's a broader point, in that he's had some people around him [Mr Darling] for a while who were quite prone to believe anything journalists told them, or even think that any bad publicity for Alistair must have something to do with Number 10, and that's obviously affected Alistair's views."

Mr Darling rejected suggestions he had ever been bullied by Mr Brown, but said: "Of course, Gordon and I have some very robust exchanges.

"I can't imagine any healthy relationship between a prime minister and a chancellor where they don't have differences from time to time."

He admitted there had been "some bad days" in his relationship with the prime minister but insisted there was more that united the two men than would "ever divide us".

'Friendly, caring'

Mr Brown was also asked again whether he had bullied anyone: "No. I get angry sometimes, doesn't everybody? I get impatient. I'm driven to do the things.

"Actually, we work in an open plan office, we're a sort of family in Downing Street and like every family there's issues that come from time to time, but we've got a great working environment and we get things done."

Schools Secretary Ed Balls also told the BBC he did not "recognise this atmosphere" of alleged bullying at Number 10.

"Jeremy Heywood, who is the top civil servant, said the opposite was true - it was a friendly, caring, supportive environment. I think he is right," Mr Balls said.

Mr Darling's comments follow allegations in political journalist Andrew Rawnsley's book that Mr McBride and Charlie Whelan, another Brown supporter, had been behind the briefing.

Both Mr McBride and Mr Whelan, a senior official with the Unite union, had their names put to the chancellor in the Sky News interview, but he did not refer to either directly.

The Rawnsley book's allegations of bullying also led the chief executive of the National Bullying Helpline, Christine Pratt, to go on television to say they had received calls from Downing Street staff.

This prompted its patrons to resign in protest at what they described as a breach of confidence and in a statement on Wednesday the charity announced its helpline had been "temporarily suspended", with Mrs Pratt "prepared to resign if necessary".

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