Tony Blair is coming under pressure from MPs to make a clear public statement about when he will step down as Prime Minister.
Suspicions that Mr Blair could be changing his mind about quitting have grown among Gordon Brown's allies after he admitted in Australia that he may have made a mistake by announcing he would not fight a fourth election. They are insisting there is "no secret deal" between the two men.
Mr Blair's remarks triggered a fresh round of questions last night about his true intentions among MPs at a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting attended by the Chancellor to discuss the Budget. It was the first time that the subject has surfaced at the PLP since Mr Blair promised his MPs last year that there would be an orderly transfer of the leadership.
With Mr Brown watching, Jon Trickett, the MP for Hemsworth, urged the National Executive Committee and the elected Parliamentary Committee to reflect on "the timing and process for the election of a new leader". He won backing from a second MP who told colleagues: "The party has to come first."
The Brown camp were suspicious about attempts by No 10 to explain away Mr Blairs remarks with suggestions that the Prime Minister had meant he was mistaken in thinking it would limit the speculation about his departure date. Their fear is that Mr Blair may change his mind.
In another potentially incendiary move, the Chancellor's allies have privately sympathised with Labour MPs who want the row over "peerages for loans" to be brought into the open. Some MPs were angry last week that there was no report to the PLP about Mr Blair's failure to tell Mr Brown, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, or the Labour Party treasurer, Jack Dromey, about the loans. Mr Brown has distanced himself from Mr Blair over the affair, and last night his friends said the issue should be thrashed out inside the PLP.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said that Mr Blair's comments in Australia had "created a lot of uncertainty".
He added: "We have got a Prime Minister desperate to stay, a Chancellor desperate for him to go and a Cabinet who do not know whether to follow the leader today or wait for the leader tomorrow, and as a result we have got bad government."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "It is time for the Prime Minister to tell us his own exit strategy. His admission in Australia recently has only added to the current uncertainty and the sense of drift."Reuse content