Hoon demands Blair quits ahead of elections in May

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A formerly loyal Blairite minister reignited the dispute over the departure date for Tony Blair yesterday by calling for him to quit early in the New Year for the sake of the party.

Geoff Hoon, the minister for Europe, broke the uneasy truce that had been agreed between Gordon Brown and Mr Blair after the backstabbing last week by calling for Mr Blair to quit before the local elections in May.

Allies of Mr Hoon, who was demoted from the Cabinet in Mr Blair's last reshuffle, claimed last night his views were strongly shared by other ministers and many MPs. "As a former Leader of the House, Geoff knows the views of the Labour backbench MPs," said one of his friends. "It's not an extreme view ... But Geoff thinks that our performance in the local elections is important for the long-term interests of the party and he is saying that the Prime Minister should take that into account."

Mr Hoon said: "Having set the outer limits of how long he is staying, that still leaves questions in the context of the elections in May. A lot of people will be asking if it makes sense to him to carry on through those elections."

He added: "I think Gordon [Brown, the Chancellor] should be the next leader so we should think very carefully about who we want to be in place when we face our next poll test."

Hilary Benn, the son of Tony Benn, the veteran Labour rebel and ex-MP, entered the deputy leadership race yesterday as a "dark horse" candidate. Allies said he was being urged to stand by ministers and MPs who are dissatisfied with other contenders, such as Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

Jon Cruddas, a former Number 10 "fixer" with the unions and the MP for Dagenham, yesterday confirmed he was being pressed to stand for the deputy leadership. "I have the luxury of being Joe Backbencher or Jon Who? So I can raise issues others steer away from."

Harriet Harman, a Constitutional Affairs minister, confirmed last night she would stand for Labour's deputy leadership following similar declarations by Alan Johnson and Peter Hain. She told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "There seemed no point in not actually being quite clear, which is I would like to stand for deputy leader and I will fight a strong campaign."

Mr Hoon is the first minister to warn publicly of the risk of a morale-sapping wipe-out for Labour in May at the elections in Scotland and Wales and local town halls across England if Mr Blair is still in Number 10.

Mr Hoon, who was speaking on his way to a European meeting to discuss the Middle East, added: "The view among activists is that he should go out on a high. He should do it while he's still popular." Asked when he should go, Mr Hoon told the London Evening Standard: "It is a matter for him but I hope he will take these factors into account ... The first significant event will be when the Prime Minister meets the Parliamentary Labour Party after conference. There will be discussion as far as the leadership is concerned. They will want him to finish at a time that is in the interests of the party and the country."

The Independent revealed yesterday that grassroots activists are calling for the party's National Executive Committee to organise a leadership contest early next year. A number of constituencies have tabled a motion for the party's annual conference this month, which will be considered by the conference arrangements committee on Tuesday next week.

The Chancellor, asked about Mr Hoon's comments during his visit to the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund in Singapore, said: "I have made my views clear on the leadership. Tony Blair should make the decision himself. Other people may have their views, I will will support him in any decision he makes. That was my view and that is still my view that Tony Blair should make his own decision."

John Denham, a Blairite who resigned as a Home Office minister over the Iraq war, weighed in, attacking the Government as over-centralised, narrowly focused and policy-deficient. In an interview for GMTV's Sunday Programme, to be broadcast tomorrow, he warned that the next prime minister will have to reconnect the Government to the concerns of ordinary voters. He said: "So much is funnelled through the narrow channel at Downing Street that we have become slower in responding to new policies. Some of our new policies haven't been well designed ... I think we have explored the limit of how much social change you can achieve by driving everything from the centre."

Contenders in the race to be deputy PM

Peter Hain

Who is he? Vociferous anti-apartheid campaigner in youth. In cabinet for four years. Now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales.

Stands for Reconnecting with the grassroots, mounting a new drive on social justice.

Allies Centre-left MPs, activists involved in civil liberty issues, Labour members in Wales.

Chances 5/2. Has already launched campaign at TUC and will hope to appeal to members disillusioned with Tony Blair.

Alan Johnson

Who is he? Former trade union leader who is the Government's fastest rising star. Now Education Secretary.

Stands for Improving "social mobility", warning it is getting harder for people to escape poverty. Has also attacked 'macho politics'.

Allies Although championed by some Blairites, he has appeal across the party. May poll strongly among members in the south-east.

Chances 3/1. A serious contender whose profile would be boosted further if he also stands for leadership.

Hilary Benn

Who is he? International Development Secretary since 2003. Tony Benn's son.

Stands for In the party mainstream (has described himself as "a Benn, not a Bennite"), would present himself as the unity candidate.

Allies Younger MPs fed up with factionalism might rally to him. His famous name may also help, although his political inexperience could hinder his chances.

Chances 6/1. Could yet emerge as dark horse candidate.

Jack Straw

Who is he? Labour veteran, has served as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and is now Leader of the Commons.

Stands for: Continuity. Would help rebuild rifts between Blairites and Brownites. Stabilising influence as he has no ambition for the top job.

Allies: Popular and trusted at all levels. Is building contacts with Chancellor's camp.

Chances: 12/1. His profile will help him, but his age (60), could count against him.

Jon Cruddas

Who is he? Former Downing Street adviser who has been MP for Dagenham since 2001.

Stands for Rebuilding the party's "crumbling infrastructure". Deputy leader being link between Government and party.

Allies Some union leaders and younger MPs on the centre-left.

Chances 25/1. Union bosses may be able to deliver some votes, but little-known among members.

Harriet Harman

Who is she? Long-serving MP, had a short spell as Social Security Secretary, now Constitutional Affairs minister.

Stands for Reinvigorating the party by winning back women's support.

Allies Some women MPs and party members. Also has strong links with the Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Chances 33/1. Could win support among women and southern members. Could lack heavyweight backing though.

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