Blair set 18-month deadline to quit as cabinet ministers round on him

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Tony Blair's most senior Cabinet colleagues plan to urge him to stand down within 18 months because he lost seats for Labour at last week's election.

Tony Blair's most senior Cabinet colleagues plan to urge him to stand down within 18 months because he lost seats for Labour at last week's election.

Even normally loyal ministers want him to resign by the time the party holds its conference in September 2006 - two years earlier than Mr Blair wishes.

Left-wing MPs will demand this week that Mr Blair drops controversial plans for identity cards and are threatening to mount a leadership challenge against him this autumn.

But insiders believe a much bigger threat to Mr Blair is posed by his own Cabinet, saying it will turn against him if he tries to hang on for longer than 18 months.

Yesterday, ministers publicly rallied round Mr Blair, condemning as "self-indulgent" calls by Labour backbenchers for him to quit sooner rather than later.

But Cabinet sources said privately that the Prime Minister will not be able to complete anything like the "full term" he intends to serve before leaving Downing Street ahead of the next general election.

His most senior ministers will warn him he cannot survive for another three or four years, because the election result showed that the voters no longer trust him in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Some want him to announce his departure after the referendum on Europe planned for May or June next year - whatever the result. One senior minister told The Independent: "He can't tough it out after that election result. We can't have another four years of this. I would give him 18 months. Tony should fight the European referendum and then go. That is beginning to look like a very attractive timetable."

Mr Blair's third term has started badly. There is anger in the Cabinet about the way he handled Friday's reshuffle, when he was forced to drop three of his proposals: to remove some responsibilities from John Prescott and Charles Clarke and to move Ruth Kelly from the Department for Education and Skills.

Over the weekend, more than a dozen Labour MPs called for Mr Blair's early departure in the media, warning the Prime Minister had become a liability. One minister admitted: "The backbenchers are all saying they won their seats despite Tony, not because of him."

But Blair aides insisted yesterday that there was "no change" to his plans to carry on until at least the autumn of 2008 despite seeing Labour's majority cut by almost 100. Tomorrow he will outline his plans for a new round of public service reforms, and on Wednesday he will address the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Although he will promise to learn lessons from the election, he will insist that he has a majority and a mandate to bring in the policies in the manifesto. Loyalist backbenchers will rally behind Mr Blair, saying that the MPs who spoke out against him this weekend were not representative of the PLP as a whole.

Gordon Brown, the overwhelming front-runner to succeed the Prime Minister, spoke with Mr Blair on the telephone yesterday and both men agreed the resignation calls were "unhelpful" and "a distraction". The Chancellor pledged to maintain the backing he gave Mr Blair during the election. Backbench allies of Mr Brown say he wants "unity in transition". But they believe he will not want to wait until 2008 to take over.

An announcement of a reshuffle of junior and middle-ranking ministers is expected from the Prime MInister today. In an attempt to draw a line under the Iraq conflict, he will recall to a senior post John Denham, who resigned as a Home Office minister in protest at the decision to go to war.

Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary, and Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, said Mr Blair should consider quitting before the council elections in a year's time to prevent Labour suffering further losses.

Mr Dobson said: "He was an enormous liability in this general election. If he had not been leader I doubt whether we would have lost a seat. We would probably have gained some."

David Blunkett, a Blair loyalist who has been appointed Work and Pensions Secretary, said "self-indulgent" MPs calling for Mr Blair to go were trying to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" while Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Secretary, backed Mr Blair but said he would have to change his style of governing now Labour had a smaller majority.

"We may have to proceed in a way that doesn't assume you are going to necessarily win a vote before you start it, as perhaps we were able to in our first two parliaments," he told Sky TV. "We will need to build more consent, we will need to engage the parliamentary party, the whole of the House of Commons, in a more active way than we have had to in the past."

Alastair Campbell, who returned to head Labour's communications team for the election, said Mr Blair was "absolutely right" to serve a full third term as he promised. "Those who write him off today are doing so very, very prematurely," he warned.

Blairites say it would not be in Mr Brown's interests to take over before difficult decisions are taken over the next two years - for example, on nuclear power, pensions and the future of the council tax.

¿ Helen Clark, a former Labour MP who lost her Peterborough seat at the election, has applied to join the Conservatives. In a letter to Mr Blair, she criticised his "remoteness" from his backbenchers, accused Labour whips of "bullying tactics, sometimes physical" and claimed she was "cut adrift" by the party as she fought her seat.