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Smiling Brown blasted by peers

Heavyweight candidate may thwart Chancellor's leadership bid

GORDON Brown faced accusations from senior Labour figures of inflaming the party's crisis as suggestions grew that a heavyweight "stop Brown" candidate could try to thwart his leadership bid.

Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, and Frank Field, former Social Security Minister, both claimed he encouraged this week's manoeuvring against Tony Blair.

Mr Clarke lambasted the Chancellor as "absolutely stupid" for allowing himself to be photographed smiling as he emerged from crisis talks in Downing Street.

The public criticism of Mr Brown is echoed in private by a number of ministers.

One Cabinet member said: "It would be a f* * * ing disaster if Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and I will do everything in my power to f* * * ing stop him."

Mr Brown is the runaway front-runner to succeed Mr Blair, with strong support among union members and constituency parties, and his allies dismissed yesterday's critics as mavericks.

Some Blairites, however, are known to be casting around for an alternative candidate.

Their preferred choices are John Reid, the Home Secretary, and Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, although Mr Clarke also made the case yesterday for Alan Milburn, the former Health Secretary.

The fragile truce that settled on the party after Mr Blair and Mr Brown's public statements on Thursday was blown apart by a vitriolic attack on the Chancellor's character by Mr Clarke.

In an interview yesterday, the former Home Secretary lashed out at Mr Brown over the pictures of him smiling, saying "people are very upset about that."

He warned that the Chancellor's succession to the leadership was not inevitable and said he still had to "prove his fitness" to assume the leadership.

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He said Mr Brown should have demanded loyalty from the rebels who wrote to the Prime Minister demanding his resignation.

The former Home Secretary accused Mr Brown of "eroding confidence by failing to work with his Cabinet colleagues" and claimed he had to "renew his relations" with senior Ministers. Hours later, the onslaught was echoed by Mr Field who said he was "worried" by the Chancellor's conduct over the last week.

"He could have stopped the near-destruction of the Government if he'd wanted to but didn't, but doesn't seem to appreciate at all how near that destruction came," Mr Field said.

He continued: "I think the Chancellor's behaviour this week raises in a serious form some of the questions that a number of people, myself included, have about the Chancellor."

He suggested Mr Reid and Mr Johnson as suitable leadership candidates.

Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, a supporter of Gordon Brown, dismissed claims that the Chancellor was responsible for the letter signed by 15 Labour MPs calling for the Prime Minister's resignation.

She hit out at Mr Clarke, adding: "We have been a very successful Government, but we really do have to shut up now, otherwise we will be walking into a situation when we do the Conservatives' job for them and let them into Government." For years Brownites have suspected the Prime Minister and his allies of attempting to find a challenger to the Chancellor.

Glenda Jackson, the former Minister, even told GMTV that some Blairities would rather see David Cameron than Gordon Brown in the Cabinet. Mr Johnson has already said he will stand for the deputy leadership, but has side-stepped questions on whether he would bid for the top job.

Mr Reid, praised for his performance following the exposure of the alleged transatlantic bombing plot, has yet to comment on the crisis paralysing the Government. He returns from holiday next week. The suggestion that Mr Milburn could be in the frame was ridiculed by Frank Dobson, his predecessor as Health Secretary.

He tells GMTV tomorrow that Mr Milburn made a "terrible mess" of the health service and was "snivelling round behind peoples' backs." (© Independent News Service)

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