FURIOUS CLARKE IN No10 MUTINY; REVEALED: How Blair Came Back from the White House to Find Brown and Straw Had Mounted a Coup on Europe
Byline: SIMON WALTERS
ONE of Tony Blair's most senior Ministers turned on the Prime Minister and accused him of destroying voters' trust in an extraordinary Cabinet mutiny over Europe.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke's stand-up row with Mr Blair was part of a split which saw Cabinet members tearing into each other after the Premier's shock pledge last week to hold a referendum on the EU constitution.
All the holders of the main offices of state have become embroiled in the infighting, with Home Secretary David Blunkett accusing Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of 'treachery' in ganging up with Chancellor Gordon Brown to 'bounce' Mr Blair into the announcement without consulting other Cabinet members.
The row first exploded on Monday when, after being told of the Blair U-turn on Europe by Mr Straw in a five-minute phone call, pro-Europe Mr Clarke demanded a meeting with the Prime Minning-Mr Clarke's mutiny was reinforced by Mr Blunkett's jibe at the Foreign Secretary and by other senior Labour figures.
Leader of the Commons Peter Hain, the former Europe Minister, is said to feel he has been 'humiliated' by the referendum move. And former Minister Peter Mandelson also believes Mr Blair has made a serious mistake and allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred.
The row marks an unprecedented breakdown in relations in Mr Blair's Cabinet.
Some Ministers say Mr Blair's bungled handling of the issue is the latest sign that he may be losing his grip after seven years in Downing Street.
A contrite Prime Minister tried to defuse the revolt by apologising at Thursday's Cabinet meeting for the shambolic way the volte-face on the EU referendum was handled.
But it failed to quell the dissent - or a growing feeling that the dispute marks the opening shots in the bloody battle to succeed Mr Blair.
Mr Blair is known to have discussed the best 'exit strategy' for him from No 10. And the agreement between Mr Blair and Mr Brown over the EU referendum has sparked rumours that it is part of a secret deal whereby Mr Blair will hand over power to his old rival.
The tensions have been added to by the new alliance between Mr Straw and Mr Brown which has tilted the balance of power in the Cabinet. Labour sources claim Mr Straw, until now a firm ally of Mr Blair, has teamed up with Mr Brown in the hope of being made Deputy Prime Minister if and when the Chancellor succeeds Mr Blair at No 10.
Home Secretary Mr Blunkett has privately accused Mr Straw of treating the rest of the Cabinet 'disgracefully' to curry favour with Brown.
But it is no coincidence that the Cabinet Ministers most angry about being kept in the dark, Clarke, Blunkett and Hain, all see themselves as leadership rivals to Brown.
According to one Labour MP, Mr Clarke had to be 'scraped off the wall' when Mr Straw told him of the change on the EU referendum in the brief phone call on Monday. …