Blair won't go before election, says Clarke

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Charles Clarke last night said it was "absolutely unimaginable" that Tony Blair would step down after bad local and European election results on 10 June. The Secretary of State for Education, one of the most outspoken members of the Cabinet, also said Gordon Brown was not behind the efforts to destabilise the Prime Minister.

He told The Independent, "It's absolutely unimaginable. It is a pure Westminster bubble. It's balls. It's just nonsense."

Mr Clarke, tipped to run against Mr Brown when Mr Blair does go, added: "I don't think my very good friend Gordon Brown is saying anything disruptive. On the election campaign, they are working together. We had a good discussion today in the Cabinet. They are working off the same hymn sheet.

"Every time something bad happens on Iraq or whatever, people start to feel a bit edgy so all this edginess goes on, but that's just the name of the game. I don't think we are anywhere near a crisis. The kind of wobble that is around all this is in the media. I just don't understand the basis of this kind of wobble."

The minister rejected suggestions that Mr Blair was mired by Iraq. "I don't think he is," Mr Clarke said. "The economy is not doing bad at all. The employment figures are very good. Education, health, crime, transport; it's all good, solid stuff. We are creating an agenda for the manifesto."

Other senior Cabinet ministers said the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had formed a closer working relationship since their very public clash at last year's party conference. Asked whether Mr Blair would go, another senior Cabinet minister said: "It's down to Tony. He's very resilient. I see no sign of it. He is working very closely with Gordon. I just think there are people nattering on the sidelines."

A report yesterday in The Guardian that Mr Brown had met Rupert Murdoch this week exposed the distrust between supporters of Mr Brown and Mr Blair. One senior ally of the Chancellor blamed unnamed sources close to Mr Blair for "spinning" against Mr Brown.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said yesterday's Cabinet, which discussed Iraq, was "one of the best-humoured I can remember for some time". He added: "They are cheerful people. No doubt the weather has something to do with it."

But at Westminster, Labour backbench MPs privately said Mr Blair's departure after the 10 June elections could not be ruled out. "I would like him to go now," one Northern Labour MP said. "We are going to get hammered in the elections."

Odds on Mr Blair quitting before the next election were slashed by William Hill from 14/1 to 8/1 on Mr Blair going before the general election.

Senior Conservative figures also revealed last night that they did not believe Mr Blair would stand down, unless the Prime Minister used the excuse of illness or family pressures.

The Liberal Democrats have called a Commons debate on Iraq on Monday, which could bring to the surface some of the Labour backbench anger over the Prime Minister's support for the Bush strategy.

Today, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is in Washington meeting Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, to thrash out a deal for a new UN resolution. The Foreign Secretary is hoping it will be adopted by the end of the month, giving the coalition forces a fresh mandate.

But British diplomats abroad are warning the Foreign Office that the country's reputation is being damaged abroad by the unquestioning support for the Bush administration over Iraq and the Middle East. Some of Mr Blair's closest colleagues in the Cabinet will be putting pressure on him to distance himself from George Bush before the elections on 10 June.

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