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Gary Younge
Oh grow up, Gordon

Sadly, the row between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has none of this. It offers none of the tawdry prurience of a tabloid narrative - give me Dwight and Jordan any day - nor the fissure of a fundamental theoretical rift. It is telling that a government reshuffle is always accompanied by a fact box of who is on Blair's side and who is on Brown's - these crucial differences would be completely lost on the outside world without the extra information about who is in whose camp.

There is some political difference between them - although it is not that great and not particularly ideological. And there is some personality between them - although, even combined, that is not so great either. They pride themselves not on principle or passion, but common sense and efficiency.

When a German friend of the French philosopher Albert Camus joined the Nazi party Camus wrote to him with the warning: "I want to destroy you in your power without mutilating you in your soul." It is difficult to imagine Gordon slipping that under Tony's door after a row over private-public partnership.

Nowhere was this more evident than on Sunday morning. As the blood of innocents flowed in the streets of both Jerusalem and Kandahar, the world was bracing itself for a vicious, retaliatory cycle. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say the future of the planet was hanging in the balance and there was Brown on David Frost's couch filtering the world through the matrix of his own ego.

Asked whether Blair had ever agreed to step down to allow him to become prime minister, Brown could have said no. He might have been lying, but who cares? It would have put the issue to rest. Instead, he equivocated in a manner that would keep it in play for the rest of the week. "What Tony Blair and I have said to each other is really a matter for us."

There are two problems with this. If it is the case, then one wonders where the small industry of published books chronicling their dispute in detail got their information from. Second, even if it was true it wouldn't stop him denying it if he wanted to. If Frost had asked whether there is any truth in the speculation that Brown and Blair had agreed a deal to swap wives after the second term he would have been pretty quick to say it is rubbish - we hope.

For the man credited with being the brains behind the New Labour project, the man who sought to defy the cycle of boom and bust and replaced it with fiscal rectitude and improved public services, this looks not clever but crass.

It is also a cruel and ironic reversal of fortunes. In their longstanding feud Brown has always been characterised as the brooding intellectual thwarted by the popular but lightweight Blair. Brown could back his views up with statistics and pie charts, while Blair relied on soundbites and polls. But reviving the rivalry in such a dramatically altered political discourse simply exposes Brown's weakness - it is Blair the president and Brown the petulant.

This is the story of a middle-aged man who did not get the job he most wanted, still thinks he could do better than his boss and fears that by the time he gets the chance a younger colleague will be better poised than he. It is a human story and a sad story. It is a personal story, not a political one.

So what we are left with here is neither politics, nor personality, but pique and pettiness. It is the politics of the playground, only with far bigger stakes. It is conducted not with the open bile and rancour that would at least make it entertaining, but in much the same way as this government does the rest of its business - by inference, innuendo, denial and rebuttal.

Like so much of New Labour's media management it not only insults our intelligence but infects our political culture with crippling cynicism. In the absence of substance, they are happy to signal shifts with a change in nuance. If it attracts a bad reaction they accuse the media of hype and hope it doesn't backfire; if it does backfire then they blame a hostile press. Somewhere between cock-up and conspiracy they have found a third way - a litany of cocked-up conspiracies.

This is a testament not so much to the greatness of the two men in question but to the littleness of those who they have chosen to surround themselves with. These are thin times both for characters in politics or politics with character.

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