MPs plot to oust Blair loyalist

CRITICISM OF Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour Party grew yesterday when rebel MPs drew up plans to oust the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

In another blow to the Prime Minister, it emerged that 58 Labour MPs have now signed a declaration urging him to stick to the party's traditional values. The warning shot was revealed exclusively in The Independent yesterday.

Clive Soley, the PLP chairman, has come under fire from some Labour MPs for being too loyal to Mr Blair. "Instead of being our shop steward, he is more like the boss's lackey," one MP claimed.

The dissidents hope to persuade Gerry Sutcliffe, parliamentary aide to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, to challenge Mr Soley for the job when he faces re-election in October.

Mr Sutcliffe, MP for Bradford South, has a strong base in the PLP as chairman of its 200-strong trade union group. He confirmed yesterday that he had been asked to stand for the PLP post but said he had no plans to do so at present.

Mr Soley's opponents claim he failed to call MPs critical of the leadership when Mr Blair addressed them last week. But his supporters claim he does an effective job and does not pull his punches when passing on backbenchers' views to the Prime Minister.

Party bosses are confident Mr Soley would see off any challenge but want to avoid a divisive contest. A strong showing by a more independent minded challenger would be seen as another shot across Mr Blair's bows.

The statement on Labour's values, to be published in Tribune tomorrow, calls on the party to remain a democratic socialist one and rejects a return to 19th-century liberalism - a clear attack on Mr Blair's aim to build a centre-left alliance with the Liberal Democrats.

Peter Hain, the Welsh Office minister who signed the declaration "some time ago", withdrew his name as soon as The Independent disclosed his support for it. But no other MPs have asked for their names to be removed and more have signed the statement since Labour's Euro election defeat prompted criticism that the Government had neglected the party's traditional supporters. The new backers include the former ministers Gavin Strang and Frank Field and the former frontbenchers Derek Foster and Kevin McNamara.

Claire Ward, a New Labour supporter and MP for Watford, told yesterday's PLP meeting she had nothing to apologise for after signing the statement. But other loyalists described Tribune's exercise as "unhelpful."

Hundreds of Whitehall civil servants will be ordered to spend time "at the coalface" by working in the poorest areas of Britain, Alan Milburn, the Treasury Chief Secretary, will announce today. He has ordered a report from the Government's Social Exclusion Unit on how the scheme should work.