Tony Blair is under mounting pressure to spell out his timetable for his departure as Prime Minister, amid growing speculation about his future.
The febrile atmosphere at Westminster was fuelled when a cabinet minister's aide urged Mr Blair to hand over to Gordon Brown rapidly. Ashok Kumar, parliamentary private secretary to the International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, said: "If Mr Blair is concerned with securing a lasting and memorable legacy for Britain then I can think of no better way than to allow a smooth and rapid succession for Mr Brown." Writing in The Northern Echo, the Labour MP said the "loans for peerages" scandal had "not helped" efforts to rebuild trust in politicians. Mr Kumar stuck to his guns last night and denied that he faced a reprimand or the sack.
The Prime Minister returns tomorrow from a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, anxious to reassert his authority after a tour overshadowed by speculation about how long he can remain in Downing Street. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, gave the rumour mill another turn by hinting that he knows the departure date in Mr Blair's mind. When William Hague, standing in for David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, quizzed him about the timetable, Mr Prescott replied: "That's for me to know and you to guess."
His hint of inside knowledge was immediately dismissed by allies of Mr Brown and Mr Prescott who insisted that the Deputy Prime Minister had not been given a firm date by Mr Blair. "There is no way that John would know without telling Gordon, and Gordon doesn't know," said one Brownite minister.
The weekly meeting between the Labour leadership and "shop stewards" representing MPs, chaired by Mr Prescott, discussed backbench demands for clear evidence of the "stable and orderly transition" that Mr Blair promised after last year's general election. "We want to know there is a plan; the details and timing are a matter for him," said a Labour source.
Ministers said Labour whips were taking soundings on possible departure dates. "They are being quite blunt about it," said a minister. "They are frankly asking, 'how long has he got?'"
A Labour backbencher, who was approached by the whips, replied that Mr Blair should go in June 2007, a month after completing 10 years as Prime Minister, but should not try to carry on to 2008. But Blairites insisted the Prime Minister could continue well into 2008. Stephen Byers, the former cabinet minister, said his departure was "a long way off," adding: "The longer he stays, the better."
There was speculation yesterday that Mr Blair could face the humiliation of being interviewed by the Metropolitan Police unit investigating complaints by the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties over the "loans for peerages" scandal. Allies of Mr Blair were furious with police for allowing the impression to be gained that action against Mr Blair was likely. But Scotland Yard last night refused to rule out the possibility that Mr Blair will be questioned as part of the criminal investigation. Downing Street said it would not give a "running commentary" on the inquiry.
The Electoral Commission warned Labour and the Tories that it is willing to use its powers to force them to hand over sensitive papers about the loans they received from multimillionaire backers. Sam Younger, the commission's chairman, made it clear they could have breached the electoral rules by failing to declare soft loans until forced to do so by the media. Mr Cameron is appealing strongly to Tory backers to allow him to match Labour by publishing details of their secret loans and is expected to do so shortly.
Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, put down a marker for the left for a challenge against Mr Brown when the Prime Minister steps down.
In a pamphlet published by the Catalyst think-tank, he called for the minimum wage to be increased gradually to £7.40; the private market in health, education and housing to be scrapped and returned to public services; less subservience to the White House; and a radical approach to climate change.
"This is designed as a manifesto for the left," Mr Meacher said. "I think there should be a contest when Blair steps down or is forced out."Reuse content