Blair seeks new policies to avoid 'lame duck' tag

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Tony Blair will try to shift the spotlight away from his departure timetable by pressing ahead with new policies on social exclusion, health and education next month.

The Prime Minister, who returns from his family's summer break in Barbados tomorrow, will enjoy a week's respite at Chequers before re-entering the political fray the week after.

But he faces a difficult annual Labour conference in Manchester at the end of September. It could be his last as party leader and might easily be overshadowed by speculation about his departure.

During a holiday delayed by the Lebanon crisis, Mr Blair will have reflected on how to handle the issue of his Downing Street exit strategy and will discuss it with senior aides next week. Although many Labour MPs expect him to stand down next summer, the signs are that he has no intention of pre-announcing his plans because he fears he would immediately become a "lame-duck" prime minister.

Mr Blair will order his cabinet colleagues to come up with a raft of new ideas on poverty, health and education in the hope that the conference will show the dividing lines between Labour and the Tories on key policies.

He wants a major push on social exclusion to show the Government's determination to tackle a hard core underclass estimated at one million people. He will devote his first speech to the issue when he addresses the Rowntree Trust on 5 September. In a busy schedule, Mr Blair will also address the New Labour think-tank Progress and the annual conference of the TUC before travelling to Labour's gathering.

On his return, the Prime Minister will also try to answer the criticism of his backing of America's pro-Israel stance by travelling to the Middle East next month. He will try to convince his critics that the stalled "road map" designed to solve the Palestine problem can be revived. Mr Blair's authority has been damaged by criticism of his policy from Cabinet ministers led by the Commons leader Jack Straw.

Demands for Mr Blair to spell out his future plans have grown after an opinion poll this week showed the Tories nine points ahead of Labour, whose support has fallen to a 19-year low.

Yesterday Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee, said he should step down within months to allow Gordon Brown to take over. She told the epolitix.com website it wouild be "a bit daft to just drift towards the next general election".

The Prime Minister will also have to referee a difficult cabinet dispute over whether to allow migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria to come to Britain after they join the European Union in January.

Key dates in PM's diary

5 September Speech about anti-poverty programme to Rowntree Trust. Part of drive to switch spotlight on to domestic policy.

9 September Speech to mark 10th anniversary of think-tank Progress. Will be keen to show Labour has not run out of steam.

12 September Addresses Trades Union Congress in Brighton. Could face criticism over Labour's cash crisis, the "cash for honours" affair and pressure over his departure timetable.

Early or mid-September? Visits Middle East to discuss Lebanon and Palestinian question. How will he convince critics the "road map" has life in it?

26 September Speech to Labour's annual conference in Manchester, the day after it is addressed by Gordon Brown. Mr Blair faces a dilemma over what - if anything - to say about his exit strategy.

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