Blair buys time with pledge to quit within 12 months

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A wounded Tony Blair has bought himself a little more time in Downing Street by promising to stand down as Prime Minister by next summer.

But he refused to announce the firm timetable demanded by some Labour MPs and his statement failed to satisfy critics, who predicted he would fail to complete 10 years in No 10 by remaining until next May.

Only a week after insisting he would say no more about his exit strategy, Mr Blair was forced to pledge that the Labour conference in two weeks' time would be his last as leader. He apologised for the chaos of recent days and warned his party that it could not "treat the public as irrelevant bystanders in a subject as important as who is their Prime Minister". Although Mr Blair insisted Labour would now "move on", there are grave doubts he will be able to recover his authority after what he saw as an attempted coup by supporters of Gordon Brown, when eight junior members of the Government resigned on Wednesday.

Mr Blair's decision to shift his ground headed off moves to depose him within days. A "go now" message, which a delegation of senior Labour figures had planned to deliver to him, was put on hold. But last night his critics said his statement had changed nothing. There was speculation that Labour's backbench leaders would tell him to quit soon after the Commons returns in a month's time.

Blair allies denied he had been bounced into a U-turn, saying he had planned to announce this would be his last Labour conference in his speech to the Manchester event, and that he would have told the Cabinet that next week. They dismissed reports that he would announce next February his intention to depart and then resign as Labour leader on 4 May - halfway through a four-year parliament and the day after elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils. His successor would then be elected by mid-June.

Such a timetable may be in Mr Blair's mind but it looks an ambitious one. Brownites described it as an "upper limit", and hope the Chancellor will take over before the May elections.

After heated exchanges between Mr Blair and Mr Brown on Wednesday, tempers cooled yesterday. In what was seen as a fragile ceasefire rather than a lasting peace, the two camps agreed that there would be "no deal" on a departure timetable but said talks would continue over achieving the "stable and orderly transition" promised by Mr Blair last year. But the divide was illustrated by the fact that neither man knew what the other was going to say in public yesterday. Nor did Mr Blair know Mr Brown would pre-empt his remarks by appearing first.

Speaking in Glasgow, the Chancellor admitted he had "had questions" about the transition to a new leader but said the timing was a matter for Mr Blair, that he would support his decision and and there could be no "private arrangements". Blair allies claimed later that Mr Brown had been seeking just such an arrangement about a leaving date a day earlier - a claim denied by Brownites. Both sides claimed the other had given ground in the past 24 hours.

Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester Blackley, said: "I don't believe by leaving the date up in the air, it is going to stop the kind of debate and discussion that's been going on."

Doug Henderson, a key Brown ally, said: "It does not seem to me that the public knows any more about the Prime Minister's retirement plans. People keep saying to me that the Labour Party must have a clear direction forward with clear priorities and a new leader before the elections in 2007."

Tony Wright, Labour chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, said Mr Brown was doing himself "enormous damage". He said: "He has a huge obligation to stabilise the party. When you are told you are going to become Prime Minister within months, it's not a bad deal. Gordon has to earn his inheritance, he's jeopardising his inheritance at the moment."

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, called for "an orderly handover, not a chaotic putsch". He added: "We were elected on a programme of government, and we owe it to the voters to deliver it."

A YouGov poll of 422 Labour Party members for Channel 4 News found that 38 per cent wanted Mr Blair to quit this autumn, 59 per cent before May.

Blair unspun

What he said:

"The first thing I would like to do is to apologise, actually, on behalf of the Labour Party for the last week, which with everything that is going on back here and in the world, has not been our finest hour to be frank. But I think what is important now is that we understand that it's the interests of the country that come first and we move on."

What he meant:

My colleagues have lost their marbles. This infighting has done Labour no end of damage and it has to stop.

What he said:

"I would have preferred to do this in my own way, but as has been pretty obvious from what many of my cabinet colleagues have said earlier in the week, the next party conference in a couple of weeks will be my last party conference as leader, the TUC next week will be my last TUC probably to the relief of both of us."

What he meant:

I know the spin hasn't worked. I have to cave in to all the pressure and give a commitment to quit.

What he said:

"But I am not going to set a precise date now. I don't think that's right. I will do that at a future date and I'll do it in the interests of the country."

What he meant:

I am still in charge for the next few months and I won't be rushed while I still have my legacy to think about.

Brown unspun

What he said:

"There are questions about what happens in the time to come and it's right to say that I, like others, have had questions myself."

What he meant:

I'm angry that Tony won't get on with it and start the stable and orderly handover of power to me as we agreed before the general election, and I don't mind who knows it.

What he said:

"I said also to him, and I make it clear again today, that I will support him in the decision he makes, that this cannot and should not be about private arrangements but what is in the best interests of our party, and most of all the best interests of our country, and I will support him in doing exactly that."

What he meant:

Tony can go with dignity, on my terms. That means starting to transfer power now. This mess is not orchestrated by me.

What he said:

"I am determined that in the months and years to come we continue to do our duty by the people of Britain - and it is my determination and his to do that - that will influence everything that happens in the time to come."

What he meant:

I'm trying to be above this squabbling to present myself as a statesmanlike leader who wants to do what is right.