Blair under fire again over date of departure

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's authority as Prime Minister appears to be draining away after he was thrown on to the defensive in the Commons about his departure timetable.

Labour MPs were left stony-faced as the Tory leader, David Cameron, embarrassed the Prime Minister by saying the Government was "paralysed" as his former ministers "queued" to demand that he stand down.

Then "shop stewards" representing Labour backbenchers challenged Mr Blair's authority at their weekly private meeting with him in his Commons office. They told him to "rein in" the Home Secretary, John Reid, who infuriated Labour MPs at the weekend by claiming that Mr Blair's critics wanted a return to Old Labour.

One MP said: "The Prime Minister was told to call off Reid and the others. Their briefing is not only disgraceful and divisive but utterly counterproductive in that it provoked a massive backlash against the Prime Minister. It has got to stop."

On a day when the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, called for an end to sectarian violence after figures showed 1,091 people died in Baghdad last month, the problems engulfing Mr Blair were also facing his comrade-in-arms George Bush.

The US President's popularity has reached a nadir, with a New York Times/CBS opinion poll showing that 31 per cent of Americans approve of his performance - exactly the same level as his father at the low point of his presidency. Only 69 per cent of his own party now supports him. Historically, no president has recovered from such lows.

Mr Blair, too, is slumping in the polls. Yesterday a YouGov survey showed that only 26 per cent of people are satisfied with his performance, making him the most unpopular Labour prime minister in modern times. It gave the Tories a six-point lead.

On Tuesday, a Populus poll showed Labour at its lowest level since 1992 and put the Tories eight points ahead, their biggest lead for 14 years.

There was increased tension between Blairites and supporters of Gordon Brown despite Mr Blair's promise to give his successor "ample time" to settle in before the next general election.

Blair allies denied that the Prime Minister had suggested he would stand down next year and urged him to stay on until 2008. They criticised Mr Brown for increasing the pressure on him to quit in a television interview on Tuesday.

The Blair camp declared that Mr Brown's continued "manoeuvring" over the leadership would make Mr Blair more determined to stay on longer. One close ally said: "There is a dynamic to this. The more Gordon pushes and his people make trouble, the more Tony digs in."

In turn, Brownites laid bare the lack of trust between the two men by demanding that an agreement on the transition be independently verified. One friend of the Chancellor said: "He needs a firm commitment in private in front of witnesses. Nothing less will do now."

Morale among Labour backbenchers slumped after the speculation about Mr Blair's future overshadowed Prime Minister's Questions. "It was pretty alarming to see how badly he got hit today," one said. A cabinet minister admitted: "He looked deflated. He had a bad day."

Mr Cameron told Mr Blair: "Haven't you put yourself in a Catch 22? If you set a timetable for leaving, you've told us there will be paralysis. But if you refuse to set a timetable, your Government will remain paralysed. Isn't it becoming increasingly clear that you should go, and go soon?"

Mr Blair admitted it has been "a difficult time". He challenged Mr Cameron to debate policy rather than personalities and recalled that he had seen off four previous Tory leaders who had also predicted his demise.

In America, only Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon have fared worse than the current President - the first a year before he was crushed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the second just a few weeks before he resigned over the Watergate scandal.

Plainly, the 43rd President's unpopularity could cost his party control of one - if not both - chambers of Congress in November's mid-term elections. It also increases the chances that a Democrat will win back the White House in two years' time. The national mood is as bleak as any time since the Carter era. Seven out of 10 Americans think the US is "on the wrong track".