Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 17:26 UK

Aide vetoes leadership question

Gordon Brown
There has been much speculation about Labour's leadership

A government press officer intervened in a BBC radio interview as a minister was asked about Gordon Brown's leadership of the Labour Party.

James Plaskitt was asked if rising unemployment and inflation could further destabilise the prime minister.

He said he could not comment and a press officer could be heard telling him: "We are only talking about today's unemployment figures."

Asked again, the work and pensions minister said: "The answer's no."

The exchange on BBC Radio 4's World at One programme followed an interview with GMB union leader Paul Kenny, who said it was up to the cabinet to have "the courage to be able to tell the prime minister when he needs to change direction".

'Vigour and determination'

Mr Kenny, who has previously called for Mr Brown to face a leadership challenge this autumn, said the British public would change their politicians, if they did not think they were listening.

In a pre-recorded interview, conducted over an ISDN line rather than face-to-face in the studio, Mr Plaskitt was asked about the effect on Mr Brown's leadership of the latest unemployment and inflation figures.

He responded: "I am not commenting on that issue as I made clear at the outset. It is not about that."

The press officer was heard speaking in the background, before Mr Plaskitt was asked the question for a second time.

The questions were not agreed in advance, but producers were surprised when the press officer stepped in as it is common practice to ask supplementary questions on political matters.

The programme's presenter, Shaun Ley, said: "It happened in the course of an interview and there's no reason to deny the audience the knowledge that it happens.

"I think it's a legitimate question to ask and there was no pre-agreement not to ask it."

He said all ministers were being asked about the leadership at the moment and those that did not want to discuss usually gave an answer to close it down - as Mr Plaskitt had done when pressed.

"We put in a bid to do an interview because of the unemployment figures and when you get a government minister on, you obviously ask them about other subjects as well. I think it's legitimate to ask any minister about a political issue - a party issue."

Earlier Foreign Secretary David Miliband told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he stood by an article he wrote last month - which prompted speculation he was considering a leadership bid - saying it had set out a clear agenda for the government.

But he said he was "fully focused" on his job during what was an international crisis over Georgia and praised Mr Brown for his "vigour and determination".

Last week, Chancellor Alistair Darling cancelled an interview with BBC business editor Robert Peston when told the correspondent would be asking about stamp duty - amid speculation it would be frozen.

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