Backbench MPs queue up to take potshots at Blair

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Indy Politics

The suggestion that Tony Blair could face a leadership challenge may have been widely dismissed yesterday. But that did not stop a queue of backbench Labour critics forming to take potshots at the Prime Minister.

He is now facing open rebellion on several fronts, including workers' rights, the threat to the universal post service and the remoteness of ministers from MPs. The revolt follows a groundswell of anger over the threat to extend the war against terrorism to Iraq.

Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said Mr Blair appeared to be losing his lucky touch. He added: "Much responsibility for the Government's downward slide lies with increased disenchantment with its ability to inspire both old and new supporters with a vision for the future."

Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow Pollok, told BBC1's On the Record: "There's a feeling in amongst the backbenchers that the mushroom principle is operating – that we're just being kept in the dark, the door gets opened, things get flung in on top of us and we're expected just loyally to respond, and I think people feel more and more uneasy about some of the decisions that are being taken."

He attacked the Prime Minister's close relationship with the European leaders Jose Maria Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi, whom he described respectively as a "Spanish conservative and an Italian neo-fascist". And he revealed that MPs were reviving the centre-left Tribune group, a move intended to put ideological pressure on Mr Blair.

George Howarth, a former Home Office minister, warned of the dangers of excluding backbenchers from the decision-making process, adding: "If people feel alienated, particularly if members of Parliament feel alienated, then that does create tensions and divisions."

The former Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd said: "What we need is a Tony Blair who demonstrates that he does care about the message that's coming back and he is prepared to act on that message."

Jon Cruddas, the new MP for Dagenham, a former Downing Street aide, warned that opening the Post Office up to greater competition would cause uproar on the backbenches and would "push the unions into a very hostile campaign against the Governmentwhich is a very dangerous and serious situation for the Government".

Ominously for Mr Blair, 118 Labour MPs have now signed a Commons motion opposing military strikes on Iraq. With discontent growing over the style and direction of his leadership, the motion is regarded in Westminster as a proxy way of registering broader concerns about the Blair government.

Critics of threatened military action include the former ministers Chris Smith, Glenda Jackson, Tony Lloyd, Peter Kilfoyle, Tony Worthington and Tony Banks. Several ministers within the Government are believed to share their view.

The left-winger Jeremy Corbyn went further than any colleague yesterday when he was asked whether there was any chance of a "stalking-horse" challenger to the Prime Minister. "It is a discussion that is going on," he said. "I am not aware of any name that has emerged yet, but discussions have taken place."

Mr Corbyn said there was a "great deal of disquiet" about privatisation, the state of public services and the threat of bombing Iraq. "The feeling is there, also, of the presidential style of Tony Blair, in that he ... calls presidential conferences on issues x, y and z and then clears off to do something else."

Privately many Labour MPs agree they would prefer a leader more in tune with them ideologically, despite the two overwhelming election victories that Tony Blair has masterminded. But they admit there is no prospect of the 83 MPs required to trigger a ballot breaking cover in the near future, particularly when Labour has a clear, if shrinking, lead in the opinion polls.

However, the backbench rumblings – and renewed speculation that Gordon Brown, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke are positioning themselves for a leadership contest – will alarm Blair loyalists in Downing Street and Millbank.

They are aware that although there is still great admiration for Mr Blair's electoral achievements, there is little personal affection for him, which could prove his undoing if ever the polls turn against Labour and the party faces the serious risk of election defeat.

Rebels who are not afraid to take on the Prime Minister

Tam Dalyell: The Father of the House has said: "It is not a good thing for prime ministers to overstay their welcome." Famously independently minded.

Ian Davidson: Glasgow MP who is emerging as a vociferous and wide-ranging critic, lambasting the Government over employment law, Iraq and its remote style.

George Galloway: The maverick left-winger and perennial critic of foreign policy claimed last week there was talk in Westminster's tearooms of ousting Mr Blair.

Peter Kilfoyle: Quit as a minister complaining New Labour was becoming too distant from its roots. Instinctively a party loyalist, but does not mince his words.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hard left-winger with a populist touch is a constant thorn in the flesh of party chiefs. Has made little secret of his desire to see Mr Blair go.