Brown, in car-park rendezvous, plots Blair's downfall

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 12:00am

Britain's finance chief reportedly discusses a peaceful leadership succession

The 13-month conflict in Iraq may have seriously damaged Tony Blair's political career, but a 90-minute meeting in the back of a car on a windswept Scottish roadside could finish it off.

With the British prime minister redoubling efforts this week to demonstrate that he has a workable exit strategy for Iraq, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is reported to have finalised details of an exit strategy of his own for Mr Blair in the car park of an oyster bar on the banks of Loch Fyne in Argyll on Scotland's west coast.

In what has been dubbed the 'Loch Fyne summit', Mr Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott are understood to have discussed Mr Brown's 'peaceful succession' at the Labour Party's annual conference in the autumn, and how Mr Prescott could assist in rallying support for a leadership challenge after Mr Blair steps down.

A report in The Sunday Herald newspaper said the rendezvous was arranged in Westminster before the two cabinet ministers travelled to Scotland separately a fortnight ago to attend a memorial service for the late Labour leader, John Smith, on the Hebridean island of Iona.

Mr Blair has said repeatedly throughout his seven years in office that he would stand down if he ever became an electoral liability.

With Britain's next general election likely to be held in a year's time, local and European polls less than a month away and the prime minister's approval rating at a record low, he is facing pressure to make good on his promise.

Despite an imposing parliamentary majority, a thriving economy and record low unemployment, this week a YouGov survey for The Sunday Times newspaper showed 46 per cent of Britons felt Mr Blair should step down before the next election and 62 per cent thought he had been 'hugely damaged' by his alignment with US President George W. Bush on Iraq.

Against this backdrop, Mr Prescott indicated in an interview with The Times that senior ministers were openly manoeuvring for a post-Blair political landscape.

'It's true that when plates appear to be moving everyone positions themselves for it,' Mr Prescott said.

He added that while Mr Brown was the prime minister's 'natural heir', he would not take power through a political 'coronation' - an indication that the chancellor would not be the sole candidate for the top job.

A spokeswoman for the prime minister's office dismissed speculation about Mr Blair stepping down.

'We have absolutely no intention of participating in all the froth about this issue,' she said.

'The prime minister and the government are concentrating on the things that really matter.'

The Loch Fyne oyster bar is not the first restaurant to have played a key role in a Labour leadership battle. In 1994, Mr Brown famously agreed not to contest the leadership during a tete-a-tete with Mr Blair in London eatery Granita.