Hoon wants Brown to replace Blair unopposed

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A senior cabinet minister has broken ranks and called for Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair unopposed when the Prime Minister stands down. He also said the Government should consult more with MPs to avoid further rebellions.

Geoff Hoon, the Leader of the House, made it clear he believed Mr Blair should give Mr Brown time to settle in as Prime Minister by standing down well before the next general election. His remarks will be seen as a warning shot to stop John Reid, the Defence Secretary, standing against the Chancellor. Mr Reid has refused to rule out standing.

Speculation about the handover of power increased last week after Mr Blair suffered his first defeat in the Commons over plans for 90-day detention of suspected terrorists. Mr Blair will chair a cabinet discussion tomorrow on avoiding further defeats over controversial reforms to education, health and welfare.

Mr Hoon, speaking to The Independent, criticised the Government for failing to consult Labour MPs "until the last minute". He said: "My concern is we tend to do this at the last minute. We suddenly worry about particular issues ­ we work quite hard then, diaries are rearranged, people fly back from Moscow and Jerusalem, but the truth is we have to do more of it on a day-to-day basis.

"I think that is particularly the case with the education White Paper, where again we have to emphasise the absolute commitment to raising standards. That almost has been forgotten."

He added: "I think we have got to do a lot more to explain what the White Paper does. It's no good waiting until whenever the education Bill comes, and then have another huge dramatic argument about it. The work has got to go in now."

On the succession, Mr Hoon said: "I personally think [Mr Brown] is by far and away the best candidate, the only likely candidate. Ultimately, it is a matter for the party to decide and arguably for an individual to decide whether he or she stands.

"I can see real benefits ­ bearing in mind that unlike the Conservatives we will be in government at the time ... that given Gordon is the outstanding candidate to succeed, the easier that can be done and the smoother the transition the better for everyone."

He said the election by MPs of James Callaghan to succeed Harold Wilson in 1976 was not a good precedent. "It was a different era," Mr Hoon said.

Mr Hoon said it would "not be sensible" for Mr Blair to bow to pressure from MPs to set out an early timetable for his departure. " This Prime Minister has just won a general election. He has a great deal of work to do in terms of delivering on the manifesto," he said.

Blairites have said he should stay on until the end of 2008. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, insisted at the weekend that Mr Blair would serve a "full term". Mr Hoon said: "There has to be time for his successor to establish himself, assuming that is Gordon, before the next general election.

"I don't want to put a timescale on that but I do think there is a clear requirement in our system to allow a Prime Minister who has just won a general election to go on to deliver the promises he has made at the time of the election. The electorate would find it very strange if Tony, having won the election as Prime Minister, suddenly decides to spend more time on the lecture theatres, or whatever he is going to do.

"Equally I think it is right that his successor should have the opportunity of being Prime Minister for some time before the next general election. Those are the principles. How it works out in practice will depend on the personalities, frankly."

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