Senior Labour MPs called last night for Gordon Brown to begin his move to take over from Tony Blair following the French "no" vote, which has killed the prospect of a UK referendum.
Mr Blair, who announced before the election that he would step down in this Parliament, had come to a private understanding with Mr Brown that he would go after a British referendum, probably around the time of the party conference next year. The Chancellor's supporters said the French vote meant there would be no UK referendum, and the Prime Minister should now go sooner rather than later.
One former minister called on Mr Brown to make a move to prevent Mr Blair driving forward the reform agenda that will see the private sector playing a greater role in the NHS and schools. "The referendum was the last rational reason for Gordon Brown to postpone the transfer, but that has now disappeared," the former minister said. "Blair is going to continue messing up the health service with the private sector and education with city academies. That is sufficient reason for Gordon to start manoeuvring."
Mr Brown is unlikely to make any move to force Mr Blair out, but lost patience after the Prime Minister said he would serve a "full term" before stepping down. It was privately made clear to Mr Blair that he could not go on regardless after the "bloody nose" he received in the election.
Since then Mr Blair has stopped referring to serving a full term. His allies in the Cabinet are keen to protect him from any attempted putsch, however. One cabinet minister said: "The referendum result will have no bearing on the timing of when Tony steps down."
Mr Brown was reluctant to take over the campaign for a "yes" vote and was happy to leave that difficult task to Mr Blair, who would have risked ending his third term with a defeat but has been let off by the French.
Some in the Brown camp believe Mr Blair's plan to use the British presidency to drive forward economic reform in Europe could make him change his mind about stepping down, but if Mr Blair shows signs of staying on for more than 18 months he could face a challenge from a backbench "stalking horse".
¿ Ken Clarke's chances of running for the leadership of the Tory party were boosted by the French vote, senior party figures said. The left wing of the party is trying to persuade the former chancellor to take David Cameron as a deputy, to produce a "dream ticket" that could stop David Davis winning. His refusal to tone down his enthusiasm for Europe has ensured some parts of the party would not elect him, but the issue is no longer at the centre of the political agenda.
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