Blair refuses to set departure date

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Tony Blair will leave office within 12 months, he said today. But he added: "I'm not going to set a precise date now. I don't think that's right. I will do that at a future date and I will do that in the interests of the country."

He said: "I would have preferred to do this in my own way - but the next party conference in the next couple of weeks will be my last party conference as party leader. The next TUC will be my last TUC."

Mr Blair said: "The first thing I'd like to do is to apologise actually on behalf of the Labour Party for the last week which with everything that's going on and in the world has not been our finest hour to be frank. I think what's important now is that we understand that it's the interests of the country that come first and move on."

Speaking at a school in north-west London, he said: "I think it's important for the Labour Party to understand that it's the public that comes first and it's the country that matters and we can't treat the country as an irrelevant bystander in a matter as important as who their Prime Minister should be."

Earlier, Gordon Brown insisted he had told Tony Blair it was for him to decide when he steps down as Prime Minister and that he would "support him in the decisions he makes".

But the Chancellor also said the decision should not be about "private arrangements".

Mr Brown's comments just an hour ahead of Mr Blair's announcement.

Speaking at an event in Glasgow, Mr Brown said: "I want to make it absolutely clear today that when I met the Prime Minister yesterday, I said to him, as I have said on many occasions to him and I repeat today, that it is for him to make the decision.

"I said also to him and I make clear again today that I will support him in the decisions he makes, that this cannot and should not be about private arrangements but what is in the best interests of our party and, most of all, the best interests of our country."

Mr Brown's comments - breaking his lengthy silence over the current turmoil surrounding Labour's leadership - were seen as an attempt to head off suggestions that the party was descending into civil war over the succession.

Unconfirmed press reports today suggested that there had been angry discussions between the two men at 10 Downing Street yesterday.

Brown allies were this morning denying allegations that he was behind a letter sent by 15 Labour MPs to the PM calling for him to stand down.

Today, the Chancellor said Britain had been placed in a "unique" position by Mr Blair's announcement that he would stand down before the next election, and acknowledged that he had had "questions" about how this process would work in practice.

"We are in a unique situation in our country where the Prime Minister has said - as he has said on a number of occasions - that he didn't want to lead our party and our Government into the next General Election," he said.

"As a result of that, there are questions about what happens in the time to come. It is right to say that I, like others, have had questions myself."

Mr Brown sought to play down suggestions of a rift with the PM: "Tony Blair and I have worked together for 20 years and done so in difficult times as well as in very good times.

"We continue to work together because we share a determination, both of us, that we will advance and get down to the business of a Labour Government and doing our best by the people of the country.

"I am determined that in the months and years to come, we continue to do our duty by the people of Britain and it is my determination and his to do that that will influence everything that happens in the time to come."

Mr Brown refused to answer any questions during his brief statement to the media who had assembled at the Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow.

The main purpose of his visit, with Sports Minister Richard Caborn and Olympic rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave was to open the UK Schools Games.

But the event was overtaken as speculation over Mr Blair's future as Prime Minister mounted.

Mr Brown's pledge of support for the Prime Minister came as he prepared to travel to Edinburgh later this afternoon for a private meeting with Labour MSPs at the Scottish Parliament.

Here is the full text of Gordon Brown's statement:

"We are in the unique situation in our country where the Prime Minister has said, as he has said on a number of occasions, that he does not want to lead our party and our Government into the next General Election.

"As a result of that there are questions about what happens in the time to come and it's right to say that I, like others, have had questions myself.

"But I want to make it absolutely clear today, that when I met the Prime Minister yesterday I said to him, as I've said on many occasions and I repeat today: It is for him to make the decision.

"I said also to him, and I make it clear again today, that I will support him in the decision he makes, that this cannot and should not be about private arrangements but what is in the best interests of our party, and most of all the best interests of our country, and I will support him in doing exactly that.

"Tony Blair and I have worked together for 20 years and we have done so in difficult times as well as in very good times.

"We continue to work together because we share a determination, both of us, that we will advance and get down to the business of the Labour Government and doing our best by the people of the country.

"I am determined that in the months and years to come we continue to do our duty by the people of Britain - and it is my determination and his to do that - that will influence everything that happens in the time to come."

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