Gordon Brown has stepped up the pressure on Tony Blair to honour his promise to give his successor "ample time" to settle in by agreeing a firm date when he will stand down.
The trial of strength came as Mr Blair's personal approval rating slumped to the lowest level for a Labour leader in modern times. A YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph last night found just 26 per cent of voters were satisfied with the Prime Minister's performance, lower even than the 27 per cent rating for Harold Wilson in May 1968 after the devaluation crisis. The poll put the Conservatives on 37 per cent, Labour on 31 and the Liberal Democrats on 17. A Populus poll in yesterday's Times showed Labour support at a 14-year low, tumbling to 30 per cent, against 38 per cent for the Tories.
Labour MPs said that the Chancellor had finally gained the upper hand over when Mr Blair should depart. They claimed the Prime Minister was shaken by strong demands for him to reveal his departure timetable when he addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday.
Yesterday Mr Brown sought to drive home his advantage by disclosing in a television interview that Mr Blair would be holding talks with "senior colleagues" about the transition. He pointedly told GMTV that Labour must avoid a repeat of the "unstable, disorderly and undignified" way Margaret Thatcher was driven out of office by her own party in 1990.
There is growing pressure on Mr Blair to give Mr Brown a departure date in private possibly May next year without disclosing it publicly. Some Brownites say that would prevent Mr Blair being seen as a lame duck and the Government being paralysed, as the Prime Minister fears. But Blairites believe the date would leak out and are reluctant to be tied down to a firm timetable yet.
Mr Blair's official spokesman said that the Prime Minister had "nothing to add" to his remarks on Monday and was now "getting on with the business of government". He refused to be drawn on the talks disclosed by Mr Brown.
The Chancellor said: "I think we will prove to the world that we can do these things in an orderly, dignified and stable and proper way, and do it in a way that is unifying as well as unified." Asked if Mr Blair had given him a firm date, Mr Brown replied: "No, and I think what he is going to do is to talk to senior colleagues about it."
As Brownites said they did not wholly trust Mr Blair to honour his commitment, the Chancellor spoke of Labour's need to win back the voters' trust after the party lost more than 300 seats in last week's local elections.
"We have got to prove by our actions, by our behaviour and also by the measures and policies we take that we are capable of enjoying the trust of the British people, that people can have confidence in us and that people believe we can take this country forward," he said.
Labour MPs believe Mr Blair will now be forced to do a deal with Mr Brown on the policy issues to be settled before he departs. This would answer the Brown camp's criticism that Mr Blair's idea of a "stable and orderly transition" did not include a close working partnership before the succession took place.
John McFall, Labour chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, said: "There is instability in the Labour Party and there is concern. But one way that could be taken away would be for the two men who were the architects of New Labour to sit down, in a private meeting, and agree on the arrangements for an early handover. That could be communicated to the outside world and, if there was broad agreement, it would be enough to meet the concerns of many people in the Labour Party. Then we could focus on the political campaign which is needed after the latest opinion polls."
Labour backbenchers welcomed the concession made by Mr Blair when he spoke to the PLP. Critics suggested they would not press ahead with plans for a round-robin letter urging him to "name the day" provided that he agreed a transition plan with Mr Brown and senior figures including John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.
The goodbye scenarios
If he could, Tony Blair would like to take us by surprise. Might he go in July after the G8 summit in St Petersburg in July and after pushing through new policies on pensions and nuclear power? Labour could hold its two-month election during the Commons summer recess, but it might prove too early for Mr Blair's liking.
Labour's annual conference in Manchester will be very difficult for Mr Blair unless he says something about his exit strategy. Some Brownites would like him to have gone by then so the Chancellor could enjoy a coronation. Much more likely is that Mr Blair will hint or announce that it will be his last conference without giving a date.
A new year announcement would allow his successor to be in place before the elections in May to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local authorities in England. Some Labour MPs say that could improve Labour's poll prospects.
Mr Blair's 10th anniversary in Downing Street is now widely seen at Westminster as the most likely date for an announcement after he promised Labour MPs on Monday to give his successor "ample time" to bed in before the next general election. Most Labour MPs - including Gordon Brown - could live with this date.
Ultra-Blairites have not given up hope that Mr Blair will carry on until late 2007 or even 2008. But it is hard to imagine Labour MPs waiting that long. Unlikely now that Mr Blair has abandoned hope of serving a "full term".Reuse content