Brownites' anger as Blair refuses to name exit day

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has decided to resist demands by Gordon Brown's supporters for him to name a date for his departure from No 10.

The Prime Minister has consulted close allies about whether he should announce his preferred timetable in an attempt to prevent his final term being overshadowed by speculation about when he will stand down. But he has concluded that revealing his departure plans would not necessarily quell the speculation - and could make it even harder for him to complete the agenda he wants to implement before leaving.

Blairites hinted yesterday that the Prime Minister was more likely to "go quicker" if he was allowed to push through policies on issues such as pensions, nuclear power, schools and House of Lords reform. They suggested that if Mr Brown sought to block his plans, he was more likely to stay on longer.

According to allies, Mr Blair has not ruled out disclosing a planned departure date at a later stage if his position becomes increasingly under threat. But he has no intention of doing so in the short term. Instead, he hopes the current speculation will die down if he "gets on with the job" and focuses on issues that matter to the public such as crime, health and education.

But his decision will anger supporters of Mr Brown, who put on a public show of unity with Mr Blair at the launch of Labour's local election campaign on Wednesday in an attempt to stem media reports of a rift between them.

Allies of the Chancellor believe that announcing a departure timetable would honour Mr Blair's pledge after last year's general election to ensure a "stable and orderly transition". They say his refusal to name a date is causing uncertainty and that the Government is "drifting".

Some Labour MPs will also be alarmed by the Prime Minister's decision. They will step up their pressure for him to name a date when the Commons returns from its Easter recess.

Blairites insisted it would not be in the Government's or Labour's interest for Mr Blair to declare his hand. One said: "It would be a huge gift to the Conservative Party. Why should we help our opponents? They would like nothing more. Uncertainty is one of the weapons you have in politics."

Brownites have indicated that, if Mr Blair named the day, he would be given the space to go with dignity. Some want him to announce at Labour's annual conference this autumn that it will be his last as leader.

However, Blair aides fear that, if the Prime Minister revealed his planned departure date, there could be demands for him to bring it forward because he might be seen as a "lame duck" Prime Minister.

Another Blair ally said: "He has decided to focus on the 'what' question rather than the 'when' question. I believe his departure will be dictated more by what he gets done than by ringing a date in his diary. He should keep it flexible."

Allies admit Mr Blair will face more demands to quit sooner rather than later if Labour does badly in the local elections of 4 May. But they dismiss suggestions that he is an electoral liability, saying the Tories would be ahead in the opinion polls if that were the case.

Yesterday, Mr Blair again refused to discuss his exit strategy. At a press conference with the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, in Armagh, Northern Ireland, he was asked whether he would still be Prime Minister in November. He replied: "I think we have had enough of that one."

Mr Blair declared this week that he still had much to do and hinted that his preferred departure date was in 2008. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said the Prime Minister should stay on until that year. But Brownites do not want Mr Blair to carry on beyond his 10th anniversary in Downing Street in May next year, with some believing he should go before then.

Blair allies insist there is no great clamour from the public for him to quit soon. A Populus survey this week showed that nearly half of voters (47 per cent) believe that he should step down now or by the end of this year. But his allies took comfort from the finding that 50 per cent of Labour supporters think he should remain until just before the next election, with fewer than three in 10 (28 per cent) saying he should go this year.