Tony Blair is trying to buy time to complete his reform agenda in an attempt to quell rising speculation that he could be bounced out of Downing Street as early as this year.
The Prime Minister's allies hinted that he would stay on until 2008, defying supporters of Gordon Brown who want the Chancellor to take over from Mr Blair next year. Yesterday pressure was mountingon Mr Blair to announce his departure date.
After a disastrous trip to Australia and the Far East eclipsed by speculation about his future, Mr Blair re-entered domestic politics with a long list of unfinished business. In a series of television interviews, he said he wanted a revitalised National Health Service to be part of his legacy. He said: "By the end of 2008, we have a commitment to a maximum of 18 weeks from the time you see your doctor to the time you have your operation.
"If we do that, it would be the first time the NHS has ever delivered that in the whole of its history."
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, cited 2008 as his preferred date for a handover of power. He said: "We are only just under a year into this parliamentary session of a five-year term. There is a long way still to go. That is why the Prime Minister is setting out his ambitions for the rest of the time which he intends to serve as Prime Minister."
Derek Scott, Mr Blair's former economic adviser, predicted that he would remain Prime Minister longer than many commentators expected - until either 2008 or 2009. In a sideswipe at Mr Brown, he told BBC Radio 4 that Mr Blair had a "much better grasp" of the economy and public sector reform. "As far as I am concerned, the longer he stays there the better," he said.
Mr Blair dismissed as "an April Fool's story" reports that he planned to sideline the Chancellor from tomorrow's launch of Labour's local election campaign. He said: "The important thing is to get on with the job. This is the soap opera of politics. This stuff comes in and goes out again." But Neal Lawson, a former Brown aide who chairs the democratic left pressure group Compass, blamed the current "instability" on Mr Blair's announcement in 2004 that he would not fight a fourth election as Labour leader. "There is no organisation in this world that can operate with effectively a chief executive who says he's going to go but no one knows when," he said.
Mr Lawson added: "No one is saying that Tony should go tomorrow. But it would be very sensible if he said at the party conference this autumn that this would be his last one, and that there would be an orderly transition in which everyone knew the terms and the rules of engagement for the rest of this parliament."
Today Mr Blair and the Tory leader David Cameron will discuss the scope for agreement on enhanced state funding for political parties after the "loans for peerages" scandal. Labour is pressuring the Tories to name the secret backers who lent them £5m. Ian Austin, Labour MP for Dudley North, said: "David Cameron must use his meeting with the Prime Minister to come clean and tell us the truth about his party's reliance on secretive trusts and who controls them. Refusing to do so will show the British people that there is nothing new about David Cameron's Tory Party."