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No10 raps ambitious Blunkett


DAVID Blunkett, the Work and Pensions Secretary, was yesterday slapped down by 10 Downing Street as it scorned his claim to be jointly running the government while Tony Blair is on holiday.

The Prime Minister's office yesterday moved to make it clear that John Prescott was acting alone as the Deputy Prime Minister and, while he has spoken to several Cabinet members in recent days, Mr Blunkett was not one of them.

The snub was seized on by the Conservatives who said Mr Blunkett should pay more attention to his own job and sort Britain's pension crisis before worrying about other departments.

Mr Blunkett, who was brought back to the Cabinet after the May general election, had suggested on BBC television on Sunday that he was sharing Mr Prescott's responsibilities in Mr Blair's absence.

"I obviously have the experience and the knowledge. I help out in terms of having to take, with John Prescott, the necessary decisions over the next couple of weeks," he said. But this claim was flatly contradicted by Number 10 yesterday.

"David Blunkett is the Work and Pensions Secretary," a spokeswoman said. "The Deputy Prime Minister is in charge while the Prime Minister is on holiday." To crush any remaining doubt about Mr Blunkett's status, the spokeswoman also said that he had not been among a number of Cabinet colleagues consulted by Mr Prescott over the weekend.

Mr Prescott himself made his own statement by tipping off press photographers that he was about to arrive at Number 10 in his ministerial limousine, where he was holding talks with Hazel Blears, who is deputising for Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary

When asked about Mr Blunkett's role last week, Ms Blears replied that she is "absolutely" the boss. She is keen to stress her independence while Mr Clarke is on holiday, underlining her ambitions to succeed him.

Mr Prescott, 67, is holding meetings with several Cabinet colleagues in Mr Blair's absence, and is precious about his much-derided status as Deputy Prime Minister - a job which has taken on more significance since last month's terrorist attacks.

He will be running the government's response to any repeat of the terrorist attack. He will also chair any meetings that become necessary of Cobra, the civil emergencies meeting room.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Tories' work and pensions spokesman and a contender for the party leadership, took a swipe at his opposite number yesterday."Our pensions are in crisis, yet he won't tell us what he plans to do about it. Our welfare system is straining under rising benefit claims and the Child Support Agency is teetering on the verge of collapse," he said.

"Mr Blunkett should get his own house in order instead of trying to run everybody else's."

Mr Blunkett quit the Cabinet last December after an inquiry found he had intervened in a visa application for his ex-lover's nanny.

His swift return to the Cabinet after only four months on the back benches had been seen as a signal of his close links with Mr Blair. But Number 10's caustic remarks yesterday have thrown this into question.