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All smiles, but Darling and Brown are set for Budget row

Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown appeared at odds last night over whether the Chancellor should offer sweeteners to the voters in the pre-election Budget.

The men staged a show of unity yesterday after Mr Darling launched an astonishing outburst against “the forces of hell” in Downing Street briefing against him.

But the stresses between them have strained preparations for the Budget expected to take place next month. Mr Darling needs to reassure the money markets by setting out a credible plan to halve the national deficit within four years. It could point to areas of public spending that face cuts.

Mr Brown, however, wants the Budget to contain some good news for the voters, either in the form of extra spending or cast-iron promises not to cut budgets to some frontline services. He believes that would help establish political dividing lines with the Tories to exploit during the election campaign.

The differences were underlined when Mr Brown recently indicated that some spending could increase if unemployment levels proved lower than forecast. Mr Darling made clear that any “spare” cash should be used to reduce the deficit.

Mr Darling was asked in a television interview on Tuesday evening about negative briefings against him from anonymous Brown allies after he gave a gloomy interview about the world economy. He said: “I'd done this interview and the forces of hell were unleashed.” Asked whether Downing Street was responsible, Mr Darling replied: “Not just them, the Tories as well.” He hinted that Damian McBride, Mr Brown's former political spokesman, was to blame.

Mr Brown insisted he played no part in the briefings, although he stopped short of denying they had taken place.

Labour MPs were divided yesterday over the reasons for the normally mild-mannered Mr Darling's colourful protest about Downing Street's methods. One believed he had simply answered a question too candidly: “Even the most senior politicians can be guilty of a slip of the tongue.” Another MP believed it was a calculated warning to Downing Street not to interfere in the Budget.

They sat next to each other at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons yesterday as David Cameron claimed they were “at war”.

Yesterday Mr McBride, who resigned over emails in which he discussed smearing Tories, denied he had undermined the Chancellor while at Number 10.

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