Blair under pressure as unrest over welfare plans grows

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Tony Blair has faced the first resignation call since his landslide victory in May. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the party shrugged it off, but some cabinet ministers are alarmed by widespread unrest over cuts to the welfare state.

A dissident Labour MEP last night became the first to call for Tony Blair to be ousted as Prime Minister in order to force a change in policy over the Government's controversial cuts in welfare.

The criticism was brushed aside by a party spokesman but it underlined the growing unrest across the party over cuts in the welfare state.

Some senior cabinet ministers privately have expressed alarm after being warned that scores of Labour members are resigning in protest at the cut in lone-parent benefits for future claimants.

The Labour Party is planning a new year campaign to overcome an estimated 17 per cent fall in membership over the past 12 months. The drop is mainly among new recruits who have not renewed their membership and are being lapsed, but cabinet ministers are worried that the protests could lead to a new haemhorrage of long-term supporters.

Mr Blair is safe from any challenge to his leadership during his term of office, following party rule changes, but one of the more than 50 MPs who rebelled against the Government over cuts in lone-parent benefits said Mr Blair had spent a lot of his goodwill in the party.

Ken Coates, the Labour MEP for North Nottingham and Chesterfield, accused the Blairites of carrying out a coup d'etat to take over the Labour Party. He said "I think it means changing the leader ...

There are people who could offer themselves - Robin Cook, if he doesn't want to become president of Scotland; John Prescott [deputy leader] could do it. There are a whole series of possibilities. They ought to challenge him. I don't know whether anybody will but if Blair carries on as he is doing, he will be challenged."

Mr Coates and fellow Labour MEP Hugh Kerr yesterday wrote to their constituents inviting a protest vote against Labour in the European elections in 1999 to force a change in government policy on the welfare state. And they claimed that four other MEPs were likely to take similar protest action.

Mr Coates told his party Labour could not fight the European elections on policies "of which I am heartily ashamed".

A party source said: "We are looking very carefully at what they are saying today. If they don't agree with the party, they should resign - they should do the decent thing and leave.

"The vast majority of Labour MEPs stand foursquare behind the leadership.

"These two are known troublemakers. This is the latest outburst in a whole series stretching back to well before last summer."

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown last night gave his backing to Mr Blair's modernisation agenda for the next 10 years despite rumblings of discontent in his own party over the cuts in welfare provision.