Blair hopes to emulate Thatcher with 10 years as prime minister

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Tony Blair wants to remain in office for 10 years following the decision to be announced today to shelve the UK referendum on the European constitution.

Tony Blair wants to remain in office for 10 years following the decision to be announced today to shelve the UK referendum on the European constitution.

Cabinet sources said yesterday that Mr Blair wanted to stay on until July 2007, when he would have served 10 years as prime minister. He is resisting pressure to announce a timetable for his departure, but it is increasingly likely that Mr Blair will take his final bow with the party at the annual conference next year, and hand over power the following summer.

"Tony wants to do 10 years like Thatcher," said a cabinet minister. Many thought he would step down after the EU referendum next year, but its demise has fuelled speculation among ministers about when the succession of Gordon Brown will take place.

Peter Mandelson, the European commissioner, who remains close to Mr Blair, hinted at the timetable yesterday, saying on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme that Mr Blair had a "fresh calling" to lead Europe out of its crisis over the EU constitution when Britain takes over the presidency of the EU in July. He said that Mr Blair should have "two to three years" as prime minister before stepping down.

Allies of Mr Brown told Mr Blair he should step down within 18 months after becoming alarmed at a Downing Street briefing immediately after the election on 5 May that he wanted to go on for three and a half years, leaving the Chancellor little time to prepare for the general election. They are likely to allow Mr Blair another six months to reach his 10 years in office, but would not support a longer delay.

Mr Blair is expected to sit alongside Jack Straw today before flying to Washington, when the Foreign Secretary tells MPs in a Commons statement that the government Bill to allow the referendum is being put on hold. Ministers are adamant that Britain will not go ahead with the referendum, because a "no" vote would play into the hands of the eurosceptics. The Prime Minister has told his European counterparts that Britain is prepared to accept "sensible" reforms to the EU without a referendum, such as giving the British Parliament a greater say over policy from the European Commission, and opening up council meetings to the cameras for the first time.

However, that will raise alarm bells among eurosceptics that Mr Blair is ready to negotiate his way through the crisis by conceding ground to Jacques Chirac, the French President, and to Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, on the reforms.

Frank Field, the former Labour welfare minister, warned Mr Blair yesterday on GMTV against allowing integration "by the backdoor". Eurosceptics will oppose any move to create a European foreign minister and replace the revolving presidency with a more permanent president of the EU without a ratification process.

The Foreign Secretary will repeat the Downing Street view that there has to be a pause and "time for reflection" before agreeing the next move at the European council of ministers on 16 June. However, he will make it clear that Britain does not agree with M. Chirac and Mr Schröder that the ratification of the EU constitution should proceed regardless of the French "non" and the Dutch "nee" last week. "It's dead," said a minister.

Mr Straw will reject Tory claims that Mr Blair is about to sell out on Britain's rebate. M. Chirac and Mr Schröder agreed in their private talks on Saturday night that the £3bn British rebate should be put on the table in the bargaining before the next summit. However, ministers said that Britain retained the power of veto over its rebate and would use it. There are also doubts about whether Mr Schröder will survive his own general election later this year, and M. Chirac is seen as "finished" by the "no" vote in his country.

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