Fresh challenge to Blair on NHS jobs

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Tony Blair's leadership will be plunged into a fresh crisis this week over claims that he has betrayed his promises over the transfer of 250,000 NHS staff to the private sector.

It comes as disgruntled backbenchers confirmed that discussions are already underway about possibility of forcing Mr Blair to stand down before the next election because of disillusionment with his leadership.

Plots include running a "stalking horse" to destabilise his leadership. One possible candidate ­ a former minister whose name was being discussed by some Labour MPs yesterday ­ denied he would stand against Mr Blair. "It's madness," he said. "And anyway, it's difficult under the rules to mount a challenge."

Senior ministers are also discussing moves to persuade Mr Blair to step down before the election ­ possibly to become president of the European Commission ­ rather than see Labour's lead in the polls further eroded by voters' disenchantment.

Gordon Brown is being urged to hold back from his obvious claims to the leadership and no attempt will be made directly to stand against Mr Blair in a leadership contest. Another Labour MP last night said he would throw his hat in the ring to challenge Mr Brown from the left the moment Mr Blair stood down. Mr Blair's popularity with the voters has also slumped according to a poll in The Sunday Times, with 54 per cent saying he was a disappointment and 43 per cent saying he should step down before the next election.

Labour MP Ian Davison says today on BBC TV's On the Record that Mr Blair treats his MPs like mushrooms: "We're just kept in the dark, the door gets open, things get flung in on top of us, and we're expected just loyally to respond."

Leaked documents obtained by The Independent on Sunday will intensify the crisis. They show that porters, cleaners, laundry staff and security transferred to the private sector will be promised "broadly comparable" pension rights to the NHS. But one of the health unions, the GMB, claims this deal fails to guarantee them the same pension rights as NHS staff.

A leaked paper shows other staff such as hospital managers, gardeners, and hospital shop workers, will not be covered by this guarantee. It adds: "Staff who do object ... will be resigning from the NHS by objecting."

John Edmonds, GMB's leader, said: "Ministers cannot seriously believe any union would sell its members down the river by signing up to such an outrageous agreement."