Blair on defensive over Brown

Tony Blair refused to back Gordon Brown as his successor today when David Cameron pressed him in a heated session of prime minister’s questions.

In the first head-to-head meeting between the party leaders since the parliamentary recess began 11 weeks ago, the Conservative leader also attacked Labour’s handling of the prisons crisis and the health service, saying the party “isn’t trusted on the NHS any more”.

He began by attacking home secretary John Reid’s plans to move prisoners to open jails to relieve the pressure on England’s bursting prisons. “The public are at risk and the government know it,” he said.

The prime minister rejected this claim, noting that when Mr Cameron was advising the Home Office several category A prisoners escaped – compared to none under Labour.

Mr Cameron changed tack, citing Mr Blair’s promise that all foreign nationals convicted of an imprisonable offence would be deported automatically. Official figures show just 86 of the 1,013 included in this summer’s foreign prisoner scandal have been sent home.

No sooner did Mr Blair defend that policy than Mr Cameron turned to the NHS – in particular Patricia Hewitt’s claim that the health service had had the “best year ever”.

“Since then we have seen 20,000 jobs cut, and 80 community hospitals and 60 trusts are under threat,” the Tory leader said – something the prime minister immediately rejected.

He then turned on Mr Cameron’s recently announced plans for an independent NHS.

“His proposal is for an independent board to take all commissioning decisions and allocation of would mean no accountability for politicians in this House about decisions taken,” Mr Blair said.

“Since there are no limits to private sector involvement, [none] of these services the Tories are going to protest about at the end of the week would be guaranteed.”

But Mr Cameron noted that Gordon Brown was “going around briefing everyone that it was his idea” to have an independent NHS, saying: “I know he and his chancellor don’t talk any more but if the prime minister read the newspapers he’d know.”

Referring to Mr Blair’s statement earlier this year – that he would like Mr Brown to succeed him – the Tory leader asked: “Does he still think that today?” To which Mr Blair replied: “I don’t resile [step back] from anything I’ve said.”

Mr Cameron pressed him, saying: “It’s a pretty straight sort of question and he’s told us he’s a pretty straight sort of guy. Does he back the chancellor? I do, do you?”

Mr Blair replied: “I’m sure he’s a lot more happy talking about that than talking about policy but I’m going to talk about the end the issue for the country is who has got the policy for the future.”

Mr Cameron accused the government of being “divided”, bickering over the leadership “all the while hospitals are closing and the prison system is in chaos”. He asked: “How many more months must we put up with this paralysis?”

The prime minister insisted: “There is no paralysis in the government.This government on energy, welfare, pensions, the NHS and education is driving forward, while his party has a series of policies that look both ways and have no credibility whatsoever.”