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by RAY FLEMING
ANYONE who knows anything about the way in which Whitehall works knows that No 10 Downing Street keeps a close control on when major ministerial speeches are to be made so that their content gets a clear run in the media. There is a weekly diary compiled by the No 10 press office of ministerial engagements, designed to avoid counter-productive overlapping. It is difficult, therefore, to accept the protestations from No 10 that it was a coincidence that the Prime Minister decided to hold his monthly media conference at precisely the moment Gordon Brown was making a long-arranged major speech about a “Marshall Plan” for Africa.

Questioned about this overlapping by Nick Robinson of ITN, Mr Blair said, “I'm not interested in what goes on in and out of the newspapers.” When the Sun's representative asked about Gordon Brown's “alternative Labour manifesto” on childcare policies which had appeared in The Guardian, he said, “We're in complete agreement on childcare and Africa. That is the reality. I gave up bothering what I read a long time ago.” If the Prime Minister really no longer reads or cares about what is in the newspapers it may help to explain why he is increasingly showing a detachment from domestic politics in favour of international issues that is worrying some Labour strategists.

Nothing, however, can explain or justify the petty behaviour of Labour's two most senior figures. Mr Blair's pretence that all is well between them is sheer cant. It is so obvious that, having masterminded Labour's two victorious election campaigns, Mr Brown has been sidelined for the third. No wonder he feels he has to put his case across in the newspapers, but in doing so he hardly enhances his own standing as Mr Blair's natural successor.