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UK's Blair, Brown unite for local election battle

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Apr 5 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his presumed successor Gordon Brown today launched the ruling Labour party's campaign to fight next month's local elections, widely seen as a test of how long Blair can stay in power.

Amid intense speculation about a deep rift, the duo put on a show of unity, smiling and praising each other's achievements at an event with party activists.

Labour is braced for losses in the May 4 elections in which more than 4,000 council seats will be decided, and Blair skirted questions about his future after weeks of sleaze allegations.

''Local elections are always tough when you're in government and it's been a tough time,'' he said.

''But we have a record of which we are proud.'' Blair and Brown stressed their economic record and said they would fight the elections on local tax, crime and education.

Blair has been viewed by some as a lame duck since saying he would not stand for a fourth election, due by mid-2010. He is under pressure to name a departure date and a battering in May's vote could hasten his exit, say analysts.

A Populus poll in Tuesday's Times newspaper showed 47 percent of voters think Blair should step down now or by end of this year.

Despite regular bouts of hostility, Brown is Blair's most likely successor. Media this week reported a new low in relations and said Brown was fed up waiting for the top job.

TRUCE? The two were co-architects of Labour's transformation in the 1990s which led to 1997's landslide victory and although the opposition Conservatives call Brown a ''roadblock to reform'', there is little evidence of differences on many major policies.

On Tuesday, Brown even moved to narrow the gap with Blair on pension reform, one of the few areas of disagreement.

Governments traditionally get a kicking in British local elections but pollster Nick Moon from NOP said a very bad result could undermine Blair's position.

''Blair has carried on, arguing that he wins elections. If he can't be shown to win, that argument evaporates,'' he said, adding that the Blair-Brown row will not play big among voters.

Blair, already damaged by the fallout from the Iraq war, has seen his authority weaken since last May's national election when his majority was more than halved.

He has suffered parliamentary defeats, relied on the Conservatives to get through flagship school reforms and has in the last month faced a ''cash for peerages'' row.

Analysts say if Labour loses more than about 200 of the 4,000 seats being fought next month, it would look bad for Blair.

Some in Labour think Blair should go sooner rather than later and do not believe he will, as he says, serve a full term.

But cabinet member and Blair ally Charles Clarke, one of the few senior figures to discuss the timetable publicly, thinks Blair will stay to 2008.

REUTERS CH RK1914

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