Council 'wipe-out' fear puts pressure on Blair

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is under mounting pressure to speed up his departure plans amid fears that Labour faces a "wipe-out" in mid-term elections next May.

The Prime Minister had hoped to quell the demands for him to announce his exit strategy by signalling that he will stand down next summer but without naming a firm date until the first few months of next year ­ before the May 4 elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils.

But cabinet ministers and Labour Party figures have joined the clamour among Labour MPs for Mr Blair to quit Downing Street before the elections take place to prevent a "meltdown" at the polls.

Last night Labour MPs were said to be collecting signatures for three separate round-robin letters calling on him to go soon, with some backbenchers predicting they could win the backing of 50 MPs. One was said to be circulating among Labour MPs first elected last year, another among those who entered the Commons in 2001 and the third among ministers' parliamentary private secretaries ­ the lowest rung on the government ladder.

The threat to Mr Blair's position increased as some ministers and party officials expressed fears that announcing his departure before next May's elections would not head off disastrous results for Labour if Mr Blair still leads the party into them. They predicted Labour will be ousted from power in Edinburgh and Cardiff and will lose hundreds of council seats.

A senior party source said: "Tony is in danger of ruining his own legacy by hanging on too long. He should have a brilliant legacy after winning three general elections. He shouldn't leave immediately after an electoral rout that we could avoid under a new leader."

Mr Blair will come under pressure from members of the Cabinet and Labour's national executive committee (NEC) to be more specific about timing when he addresses the party's annual conference three weeks from today. But allies insist he will not bow to demands to quit before next summer or declare that this will be his last annual conference as leader.

One said: "As soon as he said it was his last conference, the media would translate it into a firm timetable with dates in the diary. Then when any problem or crisis arose, the media would say he shouldn't handle it because he's not going to be around much longer."

Allies hope Mr Blair's plan to stand down next summer will become the accepted wisdom in Westminster and Whitehall and will reassure sceptics who fear he might change his mind and stay on longer.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, said Mr Blair was right not to name his planned departure date, saying it would be a "gift" to rival parties. Mr Johnson, seen by some Blairites as a possible challenger to Gordon Brown, refused to rule himself out of a race. He told BBC Radio 4 yesterday that he backed calls for a debate about how Labour should renew itself but said there was no need for a "fundamental discussion of principles".

Today the Prime Minister will try to switch the focus on to social exclusion. He will admit the Government needs a new approach to reach the 2.5 per cent of the population that has not been helped by anti-poverty measures.

Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, will enter the debate today over Labour's future with a speech discussing "five critical areas for future government policy".

A YouGov poll for the LondonEvening Standard gave the Tories 39 per cent and Labour 31, with Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent.

Differing opinions

"Renewal"

* Blairites' definition - We need new policies to meet the new challenges facing Britain.

* Brownites' definition - We need a new leader.

"Stable and orderly transition"

* Blairites' definition - Tony will quit next summer but he doesn't want to announce the date now.

* Brownites' definition - We want a firm timetable in public so that Blair can't change his mind (again).

"Great Debate"

* Blairites' definition - The party and the country need to know what Brown would do.

* Brownites' definition - we are not signing up to a 10-year programme written by an outgoing leader.

"Outriders"

* Blairites' definition - There's nothing wrong with Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn floating policy ideas.

* Brownites' definition - Tony Blair should tell Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn to shut up.

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