The Prime Minister has asked his cabinet allies to map out a radical "post-Blair agenda" to try to ensure that his reforms are extended after he stands down.
The move has fuelled tension between supporters of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, the man most likely to succeed him. Brownites warned yesterday that the Blair campaign could play into the Tories' hands as they try to portray the Chancellor as "anti-reform".
In a series of speeches over the next few months, Blairite ministers will unveil plans to extend choice in public services, including the National Health Service, and to reform the welfare and immigration systems. Although the offensive could reduce their prospects of keeping their cabinet posts in a Brown government, it is expected to be joined by John Reid, the Home Secretary; Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary; John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary; Hazel Blears, the Labour chairman; and Hilary Armstrong, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of social exclusion.
Blairites deny that they are "setting tests" for Mr Brown but say that the Chancellor's response will help them to decide whether a Blairite should challenge him for the leadership. "We are not prepared to be pushed into a position where you are either pro-Gordon or for the old left," one minister said. "We are not going to let him determine the future of New Labour by himself."
A Blair aide said the Prime Minister would lead a debate this autumn on how to take New Labour on to the "next stage". He added: "He will make clear to the Labour Party that its continued success in office depends on it developing a New Labour account of how it needs to evolve and not simply turn back the clock to the past."
Brown allies attacked the move as "electoral madness" because it could help the Tories' efforts to destroy the coalition of support won by Labour in 1997. They said the Chancellor had called for a debate on how the party should renew itself but would not be "nailed" to a 10-year programme drawn up by Blairites.
Yesterday the Prime Minister came under pressure to quit soon from the former ministers Frank Dobson and Clare Short, who warned that he was damaging Labour's prospects.
Derek Simpson, general secretary of the Amicus union, accused Mr Blair of having "infected" the party with a "Tory agenda dressed up in Labour clothes".
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, made clear Mr Blair would rebuff demands to spell out his departure timetable at Labour's conference in Manchester next month. "This is not the time to try to change the leader," he said. "In terms of addressing the attacks on this country by terrorists, in terms of being a world statesman, I don't think anybody could do the job better."
Mike Gapes, the normally loyal Labour chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said Mr Blair was seen as too close to President George Bush. "The Prime Minister's strategy has always been what is called 'hug them close'," he told the BBC. He argued that a different personality might reassure the public and Labour Party that "we don't always go along with the American position".
The same criticism was made by Jimmy Carter, the former American president, who said he was "surprised and extremely disappointed" by Mr Blair's stance. "More than any other person in the world, the Prime Minster could have had a really moderating influence on Washington - and he has not," he said.Reuse content