Blair denies seeking UN job and rebukes Straw for resignation call

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has rebuked Jack Straw, who reignited speculation about the Prime Minister's future by saying Mr Blair should quit "well before the next election".

Mr Blair is said to be irritated by Mr Straw's remarks to The Spectator, in which he confirmed he would be a candidate to become Labour's deputy leader when John Prescott steps down.

Asked about Mr Straw's comments, the Prime Minister, speaking at his monthly press conference, said: "The most important thing for us as a government is to get on with the job."

He dismissed reports that he might be a contender to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary general of the United Nations. "I am very happy doing the job I am doing; I am not going for the UN job," he insisted.

Allies say Mr Blair is worried that media comment about when he and Mr Prescott will stand down is alienating voters. "People should stop campaigning for non-existent vacancies and Jack should have known better," said one aide. "The voters expect us to run the country, not to run against each other."

The fears were echoed by Lord Smith of Finsbury, the former culture secretary, who called for a halt to the jockeying for position. He told "What I just hope is people around the present Prime Minister, people around the future Prime Minister, people around the various candidates to be the next Deputy Prime Minister, will see that there are broader interests. The party as a whole, the country as a whole has an interest in what happens - they should remember that."

Warning that the Tories are now "a very real threat", Lord Smith said Mr Blair should quit next year and not try to hang on longer. "What is undoubtedly needed is an orderly transition in the course of the next year in order for Gordon Brown - who I very much hope will become the next leader of the party and Prime Minister - to have enough time having become Prime Minister to establish his own style, his own agenda, his own priorities in the public mind before he then fights an election."

He added: "I think it is important he has that window of time to do it. What I don't want to see happen is the handover occurring at the very last possible moment. I'd like to see it happening at a sensible point."

Blair allies are angry that Mr Straw, the Leader of the Commons, did not use his interview to speak about government policy, on to which the Prime Minister has tried to shift the spotlight. Yesterday, Mr Straw refused to elaborate on his comments. Asked whether Mr Blair had spoken to him about his interview, he said: "It would be remarkable if I did not talk to him about all sorts of things."

Mr Straw, who is drawing up plans to reform the House of Lords, said the issue needed to be tackled "once and for all" or would be buried for years. "I think we either get this settled in the next year or so, or I think parties' patience with it will have been exhausted for five or 10 years," he said. Although he voted against moves for some peers to be elected in 2003, Mr Straw said he had since "moved" on the question. "I don't defend the current constitution of the House of Lords. I voted for an appointed-only chamber because it was the least-worst option," he said.

Despite his remarks, some ministers doubt Mr Straw's commitment to reform, and believe that he will shelve the issue.