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Sunday, 28 January, 2001, 17:23 GMT
New Labour's broken heart?
Campbell and Mandelson
Campbell and Mandelson are at loggerheads
By BBC political correspondent Norman Smith

Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson are very different types.

One a football-mad Burnley fan, with a robust turn of phrase; the other a bit of a loner with a fondness for the good things in life.

Yet no-one should doubt how close they are politically.

Both have been key to the making and success of New Labour.

Both have been unyielding in their support for Tony Blair.

They are Mr Blair's two closest and most intimate political advisers.

Yet now an all too public rift appears to have opened up between them.

The damaging row escalated when in an article in the Sunday Times Mr Mandelson effectively accused Downing Street, and by extension Mr Campbell, of bouncing him out of government.

Mandelson 'ambushed'

Mr Mandelson's version of events is that when he was summoned to the crucial meeting last week with the prime minister and Mr Campbell he was ambushed.

Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson working together in April 1997
Campbell and Mandelson: Blair's two closest advisers

He was given the loaded revolver and told to get on with it.

Perhaps aware that Mr Mandelson was about to go public and give his side of the story in the Sunday Times, Mr Campbell gave a briefing to journalists on Friday which many of those present believe was designed to neutralise Mr Mandelson.

At that meeting some journalists believe Mr Campbell appeared to cast doubts about Mr Mandelson's mental state.

Alarm bells ringing

When both sets of claim and counter claim appeared in the papers on Sunday, alarm bells began ringing loudly and clearly in Downing Street.

To journalists and politicians, the implication of the story was clear - there was a major rift at the very heart of the government, between the two men who have been Tony Blair's closest advisers.

Not surprisingly Downing Street has now launched a major damage limitation exercise accusing journalists of indulging in a media frenzy.

Mr Campbell has bluntly denied "knifing" Mr Mandelson or of questioning his state of mind.

Theories abound

So what has been going on? There are various theories.

First that Peter Mandelson only decided to write his newspaper article after hearing of Mr Campbell's briefing against him.

In other words he only decided to go nuclear only after hearing from journalists that Downing Street was rubbishing him.

The second theory is that Mr Campbell got wind of Mr Mandelson's article and so had no option but to try and launch a pre-emptive strike.

The third theory, is that the two incidents are entirely unrelated but the end result has been explosive.

Whatever the truth, it's difficult to see how what was once such a close working relationship can ever be repaired.


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