Blair under pressure to name resignation date as May elections loom

Tony Blair was under pressure last night to announce the timetable for his departure before the May elections - to limit the damage to Labour from the "loans for peerages" affair.

Labour MPs called on Mr Blair to announce the date he intends to quit Downing Street, before the potentially disastrous elections for in Scotland, Wales and local councils in England.

A timetable could avoid the embarrassment for Mr Blair of having to quit immediately if one of his staff is charged with criminal offences over the alleged Number 10 cover-up that the police are now investigating. So far, he has said he will quit before the next Labour party conference in September but has not given a date.

The demands for a timetable came as tensions rose again between Blair loyalists and supporters of his expected successor Gordon Brown over the Prime Minister's refusal to quit early. Mr Brown's allies believe the Government is being damaged by Mr Blair's refusal to go before the summer.

There are fears in the Brown camp that Mr Blair may be seeking to delay until the last moment before the Commons rises for the summer recess in July, giving Mr Brown little opportunity to make an impact before MPs leave Westminster for their summer break.

Mr Blair indicated last week that he would be still in office at the time of the June EU summit, but he was expected to stand down shortly after that. However, a Downing Street insider said yesterday Mr Blair wanted to stay on until July, and Mr Brown wanted him to step down in June.

One of Mr Blair's former aides Lance Price, the former Labour director of communications, said Mr Blair would be "irretrievably damaged" by the police investigation which led to the arrest of the PM's "gatekeeper", Ruth Turner, on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

"If anybody is ever charged with frustrating the police investigation it will be because they forgot the key political lesson of Watergate - it's the cover-up that gets you in the end," Mr Price said in the London Evening Standard.

Labour's former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle said: yesterday "I think these latest events are damaging the party further. I believe it would be in the interests of the party if the Prime Minister announced before the May elections the date when he will finally go."

Alan Simpson, a leading member of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said: 'This is becoming a descent into farce. We are clearly in the last days of the Blair administration and the sooner he announces the date he is going the better. He should give the party a boost by announcing it before the May elections.

"But we are also becoming alarmed by the lack of anything coming from the Brown camp. He should be saying he will stop the creeping privatisation of the NHS and halt Blair's attempts to set the reform agenda for the next 20 years but Gordon has been silent. He has a responsibility to speak out urgently."

Mr Blair will face more demands from of his MPs tomorrow for him to quit early before more damage is done to his inheritance by Mr Brown in a Commons debate on Iraq. A cross-party group of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat anti-war MPs are lined up to protest at his refusal to follow Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, by criticising the Bush administration for rejecting the report of the Iraq study group.

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