Blair pledges to 'last the course' in a third term

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Tony Blair said yesterday that he intended to serve another full term as prime minister if Labour wins the next general election.

Mr Blair moved to kill speculation that he would stand down one or two years after completing an election hat-trick by declaring that he would stay in Downing Street for another four or five years.

His statement will worry supporters of Gordon Brown, who hope Mr Blair will stand aside early in a third Labour term. But Blair aides insisted his remarks were aimed to head off an attack by the Tories, who have already floated a slogan of "Vote Blair, Get Brown".

Asked whether he would still be in No 10 at the end of a third Labour term, Mr Blair replied: "I have always said that I don't intend doing anything other than lasting the course. So the decision ultimately is for the British people."

The Prime Minister insisted he had not sidelined Mr Brown by appointing Alan Milburn as Labour's policy and election co-ordinator, saying that the Chancellor would play the same prominent role he did at the last two elections.

"We are working together, on the economy, on the public service agenda, we have worked in partnership together for years and we will carry on doing that," he said.

But he dismissed criticism from Brown allies that Mr Milburn had attacked the Chancellor by saying Labour should not fight the next election by shouting "louder and louder" about its achievements in office. "The Alan Milburn thing was completely ridiculous. He made no attack on Gordon at all," said Mr Blair.

"What he said was, we are not going to win another election simply by telling people what we have done. They want to know what we are going to do in the future."

Ed Balls, the Chancellor's former chief economic adviser, made a coded criticism yesterday of Mr Milburn's strategy for selling Labour's plans to extend choice in public services.

He told a fringe meeting: "My experience of the debate is when you get into the details of policy it is less controversial.

"The thing that is more difficult is the rhetoric around the detail. Too often, the rhetoric gives the impression that we are not being true to our values. We should not be narrowing the divide [with the Tories] when the divide is getting much clearer."

Mr Milburn said he had not criticised Mr Brown, and praised his record as Chancellor. He insisted plans to extend choice and devolve decision-making were in line with the values of Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service.

But Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, accused Labour of moving towards the Tory position on choice in public services. He told a fringe meeting: "This is a middle-class issue. Where is the choice for an elderly person blocking a bed in the NHS, where is the choice for low-paid workers when they are pushed into the private sector? I don't believe competition improves quality. We are moving slowly but surely towards the Tory position."