Blair damages party by clinging to power, say Labour officials

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Tony Blair is facing fresh pressure to stand down soon from Labour officials worried that his "long goodbye" is disrupting the party's plans for next May's mid-term elections.

The officials say the uncertainty over who will lead Labour into the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English council elections is damaging grassroots morale. They report that some party members are refusing to commit themselves to standing as candidates or campaigning for the party while Mr Blair remains leader. One official said: "Tony should go immediately. He is destroying the party. He is clinging on to the cliff by his fingertips while other people trample all over them."

The growing pressure on Mr Blair to quit "sooner rather than later" may surface today at a meeting of Labour's national executive committee (NEC), which will play a role in setting the timetable for a leadership election.

Harriet Yeo, a trade union representative on the NEC, said demands for the Prime Minister to go soon were not "anti-Tony". She said: "We need clarity. It would be in the best interests of the party if the leadership were settled as soon as practicable, rather than waiting for the so-called right moment."

Geoff Hoon, the minister for Europe, has already broken ranks by saying it might be better for Mr Blair to leave Downing Street before the May elections.

Yesterday John Reid, the Blairite Home Secretary, played down speculation that he might challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership when Mr Blair stands down but did not rule out standing if colleagues pressed him to run.

In what was seen as a coded dig at the Chancellor, Mr Reid told the Police Superintendents' Association: "For the last 10 or 15 years I have taken a very simple view that it is better to look back and enjoy what you have done and what you are doing rather than be burned up by ambition and for the next position."

He said he was "quite content" to go on being Home Secretary and had "no personal ambition" for another top job.

Asked if he could see himself in Number 10, Mr Reid joked: "Do you mean making the tea for Gordon or something?"

When a police officer nearing the end of his career quipped that he was "quite old with no career prospects", the Home Secretary said: "Don't look for sympathy from me, mate, I'm the same." He added: "For all I know, if Tony is going by next May I could be heading the catering committee or something, if I'm lucky."

Today the Prime Minister will discuss plans to cement his legacy with the Cabinet. He will set up four ministerial reviews to look at long-term policies on foreign affairs, public services, economic competitiveness and security and migration.

The move has been seen as an attempt to bind Mr Brown, his most likely successor, to his agenda. But allies of the Chancellor have dismissed claims that he has been forced to concede a national policy debate ahead of next year's government-wide spending review, saying he had already promised such a debate.

Last night a row was brewing over a decision to block an emergency debate over the leadership at the party conference next week in Manchester.

A number of constituencies tabled motions calling for the national executive committee to agree a timetable for Mr Blair to step down early next year.

The conference arrangements committee meeting is believed to have thrown out all the motions. "They decided that the issue of the leadership is not a contemporary issue, and they were ruled out of order," said one Labour campaigner.

The NEC will today consider a possible move to expel Clare Short from the party for calling for a hung parliament. The party chairman, Hazel Blears, said at the weekend that her action had been "very serious" because it meant she was calling for some Labour MPs to lose their seats.

But there will be a fight at the NEC if her expulsion is proposed. "It would be mad and stupid," said a senior Labour figure.

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